I can’t believe it’s not butter!

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It’s not butter, it’s not margarine, its coconut

“I CAN’T believe it’s not butter!” said the person who managed to coin the exclamation as the name for the US brand of butter substitutes. I wish I could have said the same when I first spread Sagana on my pan de sal one afternoon.

Sagana is a vegan butter substitute made by a Swiss-Filipino social enterprise of the same name founded by Swiss-Filipina Sharon Cattleya Romero-Faude and her Manila-based sister Sheila, along with three other board members. Formed in Geneva in 2014, the three Swiss board members-mentors support the project “with their entrepreneurial spirit and relevant expertise in Swiss-EU food law, accounting and finance, strategic planning and luxury marketing,” said Ms. Faude in an e-mail to BusinessWorld. “They want to help create green jobs with premium fair wages and help alleviate poverty in the Philippines by creating a forward-thinking business with a conscience.”

According to the company website, Sagana “offers the highest quality, eco-friendly and ethical specialty ingredients… while directly supporting the sustainable community livelihoods of our partner-farmers in the Philippines.” Among its other products are coconut blossom nectar; coconut sweetener; heirloom black, brown, and red rice; coconut concentrate and coconut puree; and various pili nut products.

The newest product, the spread, is made with coconut oil supplied by a single source in Southern Luzon and sent straight to the manufacturing plant. According to a company release, they aim to “responsibly source from and work with smallholder farmers, cooperatives, and like-minded, accountable organizations that strive to employ sustainable practices, helping them create a positive social impact and protect the environment.”

First off — it isn’t margarine. Margarine, by the way, was created by French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès to respond to an initiative by Emperor of France Napoleon III to create a cheaper alternative to butter for the lower classes and a busy army. Margarine is named after fatty deposits during its making, which take on a pearly appearance (“margaritēs” means “pearl” in Greek).


Ms. Faude explains why Sagana isn’t margarine: “Our Sagana Salted Coconut Spread is a plant-based table butter replacement more than a margarine substitute, actually — because of its high vegetable oil content at 81% pure coconut oil, similar to dairy butter’s fat content.” According to her, American-style butter has 80% fat and European-style butter has 82% fat. “Thus, it is classed as a vegan butter,” she said. “In contrast, margarine or margarine substitutes have lower fat content and are a blend of vegetable oils, so it is best to check the label.”

She continued to list other properties that make their product different from margarine: “Sagana Coconut Spread uses non-hydrogenated coconut oil; margarine uses hydrogenation to harden the vegetable oils. The hydrogenation process forms unhealthy trans fats as a side product. Therefore, zero trans fat means no clogging of arteries, and with fortified high lauric acid at 35%  it helps boost the immune system. In fact, our non-hydrogenated vegan butter baffled food technologists in Manila and became a cool topic on their Facebook group last October 2020.”

As for its difference from margarine in practical applications (such as cooking), she says, “Coconut oil’s excellent creaming properties and ability to withstand high heat makes it more versatile as a basic kitchen ingredient compared to margarine,” she said. “Margarine uses different types of oils, the flavors vary and the consistency is different. Margarine adds a nice flavor and texture as a spread, in cookies and pastries; it likely can alter the flavor of a dish.”

She added, “Noticeably, baked goods using our Sagana vegan butter are moist, have great texture and desired volume. We are pleased that bakers love it!”

Sagana sent over a care package with three sticks of Sagana and cookies made with it. Cookies made with margarine are not bad, but you can tell they were not made with butter in an instant. These cookies from baker Ollie Isidro tasted very good, with salted chocolate chips, but without a trace of another flavor, even when one looked for it.

As for an actual stress test, this writer placed Sagana side by side with some butter from one of our local conglomerates. It was a paler yellow than the store-bought butter, and it took a longer time to soften (the label does warn about that). I spread some butter on pan de sal, and it turned out just as expected. I spread some Sagana, and it turned out alright. Trying to find an off note, all I could conclude was that while it does have some creaminess, it isn’t quite the same as butter. It can be a bit saltier than butter, but my conclusions came after giving up on bread and eating five slices of Sagana as is. For one to find anything even slightly off about Sagana, you’d have to work really hard to find it, and in the hands of even an average cook (I made some gravy with it), you can actually trick your family into leaving butter behind. Either way, after having both butter and Sagana on my plate, and two pieces of pan de sal to go, I chose to take seconds with Sagana.

While searching for a “viable new value-added product to add in our specialty ingredients range in 2018,” Ms. Faude said that she started to wonder if it was possible to make “premium, all natural, dairy-free, plant-based butter” in the Philippines. “With Germany introducing various plant-based products on Swiss shelves and the dairy-free alternative market growing so fast in Europe offering milk and cheese substitutes, that inspired me,” she told BusinessWorld. “Then I found our forward-looking manufacturer partner willing to collaborate with us. In October 2019, Sagana was selected by the NX Food Accelerator program of the Metro hypermarket in Germany to make it ready for market testing in five key German cities,” she said.

“It took three sleepless months to become Swiss-EU compliant, [and] producing our first batch, and exporting these in Germany and Switzerland, respectively.”

Sagana touches on the trend of going plant-based — even Burger King has made a plant-based burger, and several hotels and restaurants are now offering vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options. “There is a global health trend rising rapidly as millions of people suffer from obesity, malnutrition, related health risks and food intolerances due to highly processed diets and lifestyles. The pandemic gives families the chance  to cook homemade meals.  More people are acknowledging that a healthier lifestyle leads to a better quality of life,” she said.

Eating healthy has become a more holistic experience, taking responsibility not just for your body but also for the planet. “Others have convictions and proactively want to make responsible choices on the quality foods they buy and eat. They want high quality, real, safe, healthy and tasty foods; they support fair trade and sustainable farming that empower farming communities, help protect biodiversity, the planet and animals from cruelty,” said Ms. Faude.  “It is fantastic to discover that local vegan communities (in the Philippines) exist, and are thriving and very open to many innovative plant-based foods.”

Being responsible for the planet is a choice, but is fast becoming an imperative. It goes beyond choosing what to buy, but also how what we buy was made. As mentioned earlier, Sagana operates as a social enterprise, and if plant-based is the future, social enterprises might bring us there. “It is a for profit, purpose-driven social start up/association that strives to build a responsible  business with a conscience,” said Ms. Faude. “Our goal is to grow, build trust and create long-term healthy relationships with our partner-producers, business partners and conscious customers.” It’s a product that tastes good, and perhaps the morals behind it help sweeten the deal. “Trading the highest quality products possible… means valuing nature’s natural cycle, preserving traditions and  know-how, and the craftsmanship of Philippine rural farmers.”

Sagana salted coconut spread is available at P255 for a 225 gm brick through and in select specialty grocery and vegan stores in the city (the website has a list). For serving suggestions and recipes, follow SAGANÀ Coconut Spread on Instagram (saganacoconutspread) and Facebook (Sagana Coconut Spread PH). — Joseph L. Garcia