Margarine vs butter argument is over 100 years old, and still being disputed. Margarine and butter serve the same basic purpose, as a spread or to be used in various cooking methods, such as frying or baking. Margarine was invented as a cheap substitute for butter and not to be healthy. Butter contains saturated fats and cholesterol. But are those components of butter important to your health?
Find out in this article about the differences between butter and margarine. You will also discover which one is not as healthy as many people think.
Sales history of Margarine vs Butter
While butter has been used for thousands of years, margarine was invented in 1869. In the 1900s, margarine became the most commonly used substitute for butter. (1)
Margarine sales reached their peak in the 1980s, coinciding with the anti-saturated fat campaign.
Butter was demonized and margarine became the preferred “healthy” choice, recommended by the majority of health professionals and health organizations.
However, the ever-growing public awareness about the trans fats contents in margarine, the lack of evidence about the negative health impacts of saturated fats and the increased preference for a simple and delicious product, such as butter, led to a decrease in the sales of margarine and an increase of butter sales in the 1990s.
In the last four decades additional evidence has emerged that saturated fats don’t cause any harm.
This evidence is being slowly fed to the public, although it will take years before the current mainstream nutrition changes its position, since it involves politics and strong support from the industry.
Thankfully, the popularity of margarine has been dropping for the last few decades.
Differences between Margarine and Butter
Margarine vs Butter: Ingredients
The main ingredient is oil, derived from oilseeds such as canola, soybean, olive, or cottonseed (80% of contents).
Some of these oils are usually genetically modified. To imitate butter and achieve similar properties, it takes several ingredients, many of them artificial.
Ingredients may include: water, albumin, whey, casein, soy protein isolate, emulsifiers, preservatives, color additives, artificial flavoring, acidulants, alkalizers, carbohydrate sweeteners and salt.
For the final product to be called margarine there are, however, some legal requirements of naming margarine.
The main ingredient is cow’s milk fat (80% of the contents). However, it can also be made from the milk of other ruminant animals.
The range of butter components depend on the product.
It varies from just cream (from cow’s milk), to a wide range of ingredients, such as milk constituents (whey or casein), salt, colorings and bacterial cultures.
It also includes ingredients to improve texture, appearance and flavor (e.g. sweetness), to prevent the separation of liquid and to extend shelf life. (2)
Margarine vs Butter: Trans Fat
Margarines that are partially hydrogenated, contain considerable amounts of industrially produced trans fats (iTFAs).
iTFAs have a clear association with cardiovascular diseases and various cancers. (read more..)
Margarines that are not partially hydrogenated may contain some iTFAs, but within the safe range. Spotting the trans fats contents on the label of margarine may be tricky, however.
Butter contains naturally occurring trans fats from ruminant animals (rTFAs). rTFAs have been proven not to be harmful and may even have some positive effects on health.
Margarine vs Butter: Nutrients
Since it is an artificial product, stripped from many natural constituents during the refining of oils, margarines are often fortified with various nutrients, such as vitamins and plant sterols.
The nutritional composition of margarines varies, depending on the brand. Fortified nutrients are displayed on the product label.
Butter has naturally occurring fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Butter made from milk of grass-fed cows (as opposed to grain fed) contains a higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratio (anti-inflammatory properties), higher vitamin K2 contents (protective from cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and cancer), higher CLA (anticancer properties) and butyrate fatty acids (anti-inflammatory properties).
Margarine vs Butter: Fat types
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are less stable, since they oxidize easier causing damage to the cell structures. (5)
Fat in butter is predominantly made of saturated fatty acids, which have been proven not to have negative impacts on health. Saturated fats increase the good HDL cholesterol and the benign large LDL cholesterol.
It has not been shown that they increase the risk of heart disease, as many sources claim. (6)
Margarine vs Butter: Plant sterols
Margarines generally contain plant sterols. It is advised to consume 2-3g of plant sterols daily to reduce the cholesterol levels by up to around 10%. Such amounts are found in plant sterol enriched margarines (usually clearly stated on the label).
2-3g is equivalent to 1-1.5 tablespoon of enriched margarine. (7) Plant sterols are a controversial subject, however. Although the reduction of cholesterol may seem significant, overall plant sterols are not linked with a reduction of inflammation (8), and have not been shown to reduce the risks of cardiovascular, heart disease or heart attacks. (9, 10, 11) Some studies actually show that there is an association with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. (12)
No plant sterols, unless added. (13)
Margarine vs Butter: Cholesterol contents
Modern margarine products are made of plants. Therefore, they don’t contain cholesterol.
Contains cholesterol. Note that the negative effects on the cardiovascular health of dietary cholesterol was debunked over a decade ago.
Margarine vs Butter: Effect on blood cholesterol
Although the plant sterols and sterols present in fortified margarines reduce both HDL and LDL cholesterol, they have an insignificant impact on inflammation – one of the most significant risks of atherosclerosis. (8, 14)
Since it has a considerable proportion of saturated fatty acids, it increases total cholesterol including HDL and LDL cholesterol. The LDL cholesterol type that increases is, however, the harmless, larger and less dense one. (15)
Margarine vs Butter: Inflammation
The high amount of omega-6 fatty acids, present in margarine, increases the production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids. These specialized fatty acids play an important role in immunity.
Inflammation is one of the immune reactions and part of a healing process due to injury. However, when it is chronic, it may lead to vascular damage and result in cardiovascular disease. (16)
No adverse effect on inflammation. Some evidence even shows anti-inflammatory effects. (16)
Margarine vs Butter: How is it made?
The production of margarine involves various processes with the aid of a variety of chemicals and materials. The processes of making margarine start from oil extraction and refining.
The production of margarine from the refined oils involves mixing them with a wide range of additives, such as emulsifiers, natural colors, vitamins, antioxidants, flavors and various powdered ingredients. It follows the processes of pasteurization, stirring under heated conditions, solidifying by chilling and crystallization.
The production of some margarines involves the process of hydrogenation that creates dangerous fatty acids, called trans fats. The desired properties of margarines are achieved by mixing different proportions of specific triglycerides and involve reactions on molecular levels, such as rearrangement or fractionation.
Butter mainly involves churning the cream until it becomes solid. Industrially produced butter involves very little processing: a small number of steps that don’t require chemicals or high temperatures.
A typical industrial butter making process involves pasteurization, starter culture inoculation, aging, crystallization and churning.
Butter can be done easily in your own home with minimal equipment (e.g. a blender), simply by churning cream, which separates butter fat from buttermilk. (17)
Margarine vs Butter: Culinary properties
Margarine is softer and easier to spread. Margarine can be used instead of butter for baking. However, it doesn’t achieve the same taste or flakiness.
The higher amount of fat in margarine, the more suitable it is for baking. Margarine products differ greatly in terms of taste, depending on the ingredients used.
Pure butter is quite hard at fridge temperature. Butter spreads are designed to be softer and more usable in the kitchen.
However, their softness is achieved by adding vegetable oils (which have a lower melting point), such as canola oil.
In terms of taste, butter is a preferred choice to margarine. Butter is better in baking, resulting in tastier and flakier pastry. (18)
Margarine vs Butter: What to look for on the labels?
Choose margarines that don’t contain GMOs, partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats.
To choose pure butter, read the ingredient list. It should only contain milk components (it also may contain salt). It is hard in the fridge temperatures.
Spreadable butters are usually a mix of cow’s butter and vegetable oils. If the percentage of milk fat is less than 80%, it may be called something else, e.g. spread.
Margarine vs Butter: Calories
Some sources compare calories in margarine and butter. Calories, however, depend on the fat contents in the product.
An equal amount of fat in butter and margarine will have the same amount of calories. The bottom line is that an 80% fat margarine and 80% fat butter will have the same amount of calories.
There are other spreads, not called specifically “margarine” or “butter”, that have lower contents of fat.
Why are calories even relevant in this comparison?
Counting calories has been a popular method in some FAD diets since the 1980s. It is surprisingly still used by some weight loss/management programs. Calorie counting is actually an ineffective method of weight loss in the long term. (read more..)