butter dish shaped like a heart with several small pieces of butter also shaped like hears

Which Is Better: Butter Or Margarine?

Butter versus margarine is an ongoing debate among health experts. 

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Butter is dairy product formed by churning cream to separate the liquid from the solid, and is a classic spread and addition to baked and cooked foods. Margarine was developed as a dairy-free alternative to butter. Heart health is a big factor when deciding which is a more beneficial option.

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Individual dietary needs may indicate whether margarine or butter is better for a specific person, but for those who have no such restriction, here’s the breakdown for these two foods.

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History of Margarine

Margarine is a dairy-free substitute for butter that was first created in France by Hippolyte Mèges-Mouries as a cheap butter alternative for French workers and soldiers in the Franco-Prussian war. In 1902, Wilhelm Normann created a process to hydrogenate (harden) oils. This widened the markets for vegetable oils, and by 1969, margarine production began to rival butter, and was advertised to be better for people’s health and budget. 

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Now, margarine is easily available in tub or stick form. Before 2006, the hydrogenation process created trans fats to solidify the vegetable oils; since then, companies have been creating margarine without trans fats as health concerns arose. [1]

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Read More: People Are Going Crazy for Kerrygold Butter

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About Margarine

Trans fats raise levels of LDL, which is bad cholesterol, while lowering HDL, the good cholesterol.  If you choose to use margarine, look for brands with zero grams of trans fats and be sure the ingredients don’t include partially hydrogenated oils. (If it contained partially hydrogenated oils, it will contain trans fats, even if it’s advertised not to, because companies can claim zero grams of trans fats if there’s less than 0.5 grams per serving.) In general, the harder the margarine is at room temperature, the more trans fats it contains.

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A high consumption of trans fats have been connected to a higher risk of chronic disease, and the FDA is working on a ban against trans fats in food products. [2]

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Margarines without trans fats use an interesterification method and adds saturated fat to the oil to solidify it.

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While butter is made of pasteurized cream, margarine is composed of maltodextrin, soy lecithin, and mono- or diglycerides, and oils like olive oil, fish oil, canola oil, palm fruit oil, and soybean oil. Not all margarine is made the same, since some are intended for baking while others are meant as a spread.

  • Stick margarine is most commonly used in baking but often has trans fats.
  • Light margarine has less calories and fat, and contains more water that regular margarine, but it may still have partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Margarine with phytosterols, which are plant-based compounds that can reduce blood cholesterol, are usually made of a blend of olive oil, soybean oil, or flaxseed oil. 

About Butter

Butter is made of pasteurized cream, with occasionally added salt. Grass-fed dairy products are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which contribute to better heart health, and vitamin K2, which aids bone health. These products also contain short and medium-chain triglycerides that help the metabolism, immunity, and improves gut bacteria.

Regular or rather non-grass-fed butter contain little to none of these benefits. [3]

Butter does, however, contain saturated fats. Studies have found that a high intake of saturated fats is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, which led to people limiting their butter intake in the 70s. More recent observational studies exploring the association has shown mixed results, leaving no strong evidence supporting the claim that a high intake of saturated fat directly contributes to heart disease. Meanwhile, some experts believe that eating saturated fat has health benefits, such as improving a person’s blood lipid profile. It can even raise HDL (good) cholesterol and reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. [4]

When saturated fat went under scrutiny in the 70s, the media promoted that message that “all fats are bad,” which is not the case. Different kinds of fat affect the body differently. As the war on fat went on, low-fat food products came to grocery stores, but these were often filled with sugar and refined carbohydrates to supplement the taste.

The findings demonstrate that, in practice, when people lower their saturated fat intake, they don’t necessarily eat healthier diets. Saturated fat is found in a range of foods—including not only butter and meats but also milk, yogurt, cheese, nuts, and vegetable oils. Each of these foods has different effects on heart disease,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University

“Instead of emphasizing one nutrient, we need to move to food-based recommendations. We’re not going to artificially create healthy diets by manufacturing low-fat, low-saturated-fat packaged foods. What we eat should be whole, minimally processed, nutritious food—food that is in many cases as close to its natural form as possible.

For many people, this means choosing butter as their favored spread and baking addition, and avoiding margarine, the more manufactured option.

Choosing Butter

It may be a relief for some people to re-focus on whole, natural foods after the previous low-fat craze. Fads like those tend to distract from the real purpose of food.

“Food is about enjoyment and nourishment to the body as well as the soul,” says Lilian Cheung, director of health promotion and communication in the HSPH Department of Nutrition. “Choose what you eat mindfully and enjoy. Be aware and sensible about your choices, because it’s your health and well-being.” [5]

So by all means, it might be beneficial to allow butter back into the house. Be sure to buy grass-fed products that contains cream, salt, and nothing else (unless you opt for the unsalted version). These brands contain the most health benefits and avoid the detriment of unnecessary additives. 

Keep Reading: ‘Buttered Saltine Crackers’ Are The Hot New Viral Snack Trend That’s Taking Over the Internet

  1. ‘Margarine.’ Science Direct M. Vaisey-Genser, Jacqueline B. Marcus MS, RD, LD, CNS, FADA. Published 2013
  2. ‘Trans Fats.’ American Heart Association
  3. ‘Butter vs. Margarine: How to choose.’ Medical News Today Megan Ware, RDN, LD. Published May 24, 2017
  4. ‘Butter vs. Margarine: Which Is Healthier?’ Health Line Kris Gunnars, BSc. Published April 17, 2018
  5. ‘Is Butter Really Back?’ Harvard Barbara Moran.
Sarah Biren
Freelance Writer
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender.
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