Butter is a solid dairy product made by churning cream or milk to separate the solid components from the liquid. The solids that disperse form butter. Butter is commonly used in cooking, baking and as a spread for bread and bread-like products.
Margarine was developed as a substitute for butter and is made from plant-based oils such as canola oil, palm fruit oil and soybean oil.
Salt and other ingredients that keep the flavor and texture of the spread acceptable to the consumer such as maltodextrin, soy lecithin and mono or diglycerides are commonly added as well. Oils such as olive oil, flaxseed oil and fish oil may also be used.
Some kinds of margarine are meant to be used as a spread only and should not be used for baking or cooking.
Fats and cholesterol
Trans fat: Trans fat raises LDL (bad) cholesterol significantly while lowering HDL (good) cholesterol. Trans fats harden at room temperature. As a general rule, the harder the margarine, the more trans fat it contains. However, food companies can claim a product contains zero trans fat as long as it contains less than 0.5 grams per serving.
Instead of looking at just the nutrition label, make sure to look at the ingredient label of any processed food for partially hydrogenated oils, a common source of trans fat. If the product contains partially hydrogenated oils, it will contain trans fat even if the label claims 0 grams.
Saturated fat: Saturated fat also raises LDL (bad) cholesterol, but less than trans fats. Butter contains a significant amount of saturated fat, but little-to-no trans fat.
Cholesterol: Cholesterol is found only in animal products, coconut and palm oil. Most margarines contain little or no cholesterol. Butter contains a significant amount of cholesterol.
From recent research, we now know that the body creates cholesterol in much larger amounts than what you eat.1 Cholesterol in food does not necessarily affect your blood cholesterol levels.
Nutritional breakdown of butter
The better fed that cows are, the healthier their butter should be.
One tablespoon of butter contains 100 calories, 12 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, 0.5 grams of trans fat, 31 mg of cholesterol, 0 grams of carbohydrates, and 0 grams of sugar. Butter is made of simply pasteurized cream. Sometimes salt is added.
In countries where cows are grass-fed, butter consumption is associated with a dramatic reduction in heart disease risk. Grass-fed dairy products are much higher in Vitamin K2 and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are incredibly important for the heart.2
If cows have access to healthier food, you can also get this benefit when you consume other products from the cows - for example, meat, cheese, and milk.
Types of margarine
One tablespoon of stick margarine contains 80-100 calories, 9-11 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 1.5-2.5 grams of trans fat, 0 grams of cholesterol, 0 grams of carbohydrates and 0 grams of sugar.
- Pro: may contain slightly fewer calories than butter
- Con: contain trans fat.
Different types of margarine contain different amounts of calories and trans fats.
Light margarine contains a higher percentage of water than traditional margarine, making it lower in calories and fat.
Generally, light margarine contains 40 calories, 5 grams of fat, 1-1.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 grams of cholesterol, 0 grams of carbohydrates, and 0 grams of sugar per tablespoon.
- Pro: contain less saturated and trans fat than regular margarine
- Con: still may contain some partially hydrogenated oils.
Margarine with phytosterols
Phytosterols are plant-based compounds that are similar in structure to cholesterol. Because of this, they compete with cholesterol for absorption in the body, reducing cholesterol absorption and therefore reducing blood cholesterol. Margarines with phytosterols contain a blend of oils such as olive oil or flaxseed oil.
Generally, margarine with phytosterols contain 70-80 calories, 8 grams of fat, 2.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 grams of cholesterol per tablespoon, 0 grams of carbohydrates, and 0 grams of sugar.
- Pro: can help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, contain no trans fat
- Con: slightly higher in calories and saturated fat than light margarines.
Butter vs. margarine: making a choice
The decision on whether to choose butter or margarine is dependent on the individual and their specific dietary needs.
Butter can be a useful source of fat but can also provide unwanted calories.
Maintaining proper nutrition is a personalized undertaking. What makes sense for one person might not be in the best interest of the next.
- Look for the least amount of trans fat - preferably 0 grams - and be sure to check the ingredient label for partially hydrogenated oils
- If buying butter, choose grass-fed when possible
- Choose a brand that tastes good to you - if you don't like it, you are likely to use too much to compensate for bland or missing flavors.
Adding butter to foods adds calories you may not necessarily think about. For example, adding a tablespoon of butter to something you eat every day adds 100 calories each day, or 36,500 calories a year.
That being said, butter can be important in a meal because it adds a fat source. Our body requires fat to function. Fat also provides a feeling of satiety in meals; if you eat a meal without a fat source, you are likely to feel hungry again shortly after.
If you have questions about whether butter or margarine is a good choice for you, please consult a registered dietitian.