This new, super low-calorie butter has a surprising main ingredient

Food scientists at Cornell University developed a butter substitute that is totally free of dairy and has just a quarter of the calories.
Jason Koski, Cornell University/Getty Images

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/ Source: TODAY
By Erica Chayes Wida

In the chemistry labs at Cornell University, scientists have been busy inventing a new product — a butter-like spread made with a pretty surprising ingredient: water.

While creamy, dairy-free aren't exactly new, the scientists' new concoction contains only a quarter of the calories as the real thing, and much less fat.

Food scientists at Cornell University invent a new type of spread that can work as a butter alternative with a fraction of the calories.Jason Koski, Cornell University

This week, the Cornell Chronicle announced the university's food scientists had developed a new process to create a low-calorie, low-fat butter alternative. The spread, an emulsion made from large amounts of water "with minuscule drops of vegetable oil and milk fat," has less than 3 grams of fat and 25 calories per tablespoon.

"Imagine 80% water in 20% oil and we create something with the consistency of butter, with the mouth feel of butter and creaminess of butter," said Alireza Abbaspourrad, an assistant professor of food chemistry and ingredient technology who published the study.

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According to Abbaspourrad, "emulsifying water is nothing new," but the method of adding more and more water until it reaches an 80% to 20% ratio is.

Emulsions made mostly from water (high-internal phase emulsions, or HIPEs as they're called in the scientific community) don't typically have an appetizing, spreadable texture. Abbaspourrad and his team, however, added natural ingredients like beeswax to help stabilize the mixture so it would look and feel like a buttery spread.

So how does Abbaspourrad's buttery spread compare to others on the market?

A tablespoon of regular butter made from cow's milk usually contains about 11 grams of fat and 100 calories per serving.

Many alternative butter spreads that swap out the dairy still have around the same amount of fat and calories as regular butter. Earth Balance Original Buttery Spread (which is made of with a blend of vegetable oils like soybean, olive and flax) contains 11 grams of fat and 100 calories in one tablespoon.

Even a lower-calorie spread, like I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! Light, has 4 grams of fat and 40 calories per serving.

Doctoral candidate Michelle Lee, foreground, and postdoctoral researcher Chen Tan work in the laboratory of Alireza Abbaspourrad to develop a buttery spread made mostly of water.Jason Koski, Cornell University

As for the flavor, Abbaspourrad said it would likely be pretty easy to add a few ingredients to the low-calorie base to mimic a buttery taste.

"We can add milk protein or plant-based protein, and since the water acts like a carrier, we can adjust for nutrition and load it with vitamins or add flavors,” Abbaspourrad said. “Essentially, we can create something that makes it feel like butter — and instead of seeing a lot of saturated fat, this has minute amounts. It’s a completely different formulation."

There are a lot of reasons why people try to limit their butter consumption, so this new product could be revolutionary for millions. Some seek alternatives because of a dairy sensitivity or a dietary preference like veganism. Others aim to lower their cholesterol by eating fewer animal fats. Some point to the impact that raising livestock has on the planet and are opting to supplement more of their meals with meat and milk alternatives.

A spokesperson for Cornell told TODAY that scientists would like to be able to get the product to market for consumers soon, but could not provide details on a specific mass production timeline.