Butter vs. Margarine: Which is Better?

By Amber Charles, MSPH, RDN

February 15, 2021


Have you ever stood in the dairy aisle of the grocery store and deliberated about which of these spreads to purchase, but you weren't sure what is the difference?


Or maybe you’ve been told to replace butter with margarine because it is healthier.


Put your worries aside, it is heart health month and in this blog you will learn about the the similarities and differences between butter and margarine to help you make an informed decision at your next grocery haul!


PS: margarine may not be as healthy as you think.


In this blog:

  • Butter and Margarine: What you need to know

  • The Major Difference

  • Replace Fat with Fat

  • What can I use instead of butter or margarine?

  • Takeaway

Picture: Wix/stock image


Butter and Margarine: What You need to Know

While butter and margarine are both 80% fat, the basic difference is that butter is made from cow's milk (dairy) and margarine is made from vegetable oils.


Butter is naturally high in saturated fat - the 'unhealthy' kind of fat that has been the subject of controversial findings related to heart disease and the risk of cancer (1,2).


On the other hand, margarine is rich in un saturated fats - the 'good' kind of fats that are associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease (1).


At the surface, choosing margarine seems like the obvious healthy choice...right?


Not necessarily.


The Major Difference


Although butter is demonized for being high in saturated fats, in some cases it is actually the less processed of the two.


Vegetable oils - the stuff margarine is made from - are naturally liquid at room temperature.


To make these oils a solid imitation of butter, they undergo quite a lot of processing, namely, partial hydrogenation, a technique that become popular in the early 1900s as vegetable fats replaced animal fats (1,3).


A by-product of hydrogenation is trans-fat - the type of fat that exerts twice the deleterious effects as saturated fats and death by heart disease! (1,3) (ouch).


It is for this reason that trans-fats have been banned in some countries and several states across the U.S. (1).


All margarines are not equal though - stick margarines are harder and higher in trans-fats than tub margarines while nonhydrogenated margarines may reduce your risk for heart disease (3,5).


Notably, some brands have stopped using the hydrogenation method and are producing margarines without trans fats.


To be sure, you should read the nutrition facts label to determine if the product has any trans fat and avoid it altogether.


Fun fact: saturated fats from coconut oil and dairy improve lipid profiles, likely because other components of the food have a positive effect #foodsynergy (1,4).


Replace Fat with Fat

Do not be dismayed - you don't have to avoid dietary fats (blog on fats coming soon).

In fact, following a low-fat diet does not decrease your risk of developing heart disease so this should not be your focus (1,6).


What matters is the type of fat consumed (1,2,5).


Replacing saturated fat and trans fat with a combination of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, although polyunsaturated fats are the key to that reduction (1,5).


What can I use instead of butter or margarine?

Though butter and margarine do not need to be avoided, using them sparingly while incorporating other sources of healthy fats is a good approach for #hearthealth.


You may choose to drizzle toasted bread with coconut oil or olive oil in place of buttery spreads, or use a nonhydrogenated oil-based spread instead.


Other heart-friendly fats you can incorporate weekly include (1,4,6):

  • Nuts and nut butters

  • Fish (2x/week)

  • Avocado

  • Soy products (including tofu)

  • Nonhydrogenated vegetable oils

Takeaway

Nonhydrogenated margarine products can reduce the risk of heart disease compared to butter which is high in saturated fat.


However, when eating to reduce your risk of developing heart disease, do not focus on a low-fat diet but nourish your body with the right type of fats!

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the care of your medical provider.

References:

  1. Dietary fats and coronary heart disease - Willett - 2012 - Journal of Internal Medicine - Wiley Online Library

  2. Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies - PubMed (nih.gov)

  3. Trans Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease | NEJM

  4. Dietary Fats and Health: Dietary Recommendations in the Context of Scientific Evidence | Advances in Nutrition | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

  5. Effects of margarine compared with those of butter on blood lipid profiles related to cardiovascular disease risk factors in normolipemic adults fed controlled diets | The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

  6. Dietary fat - UpToDate

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