The debate about whether margarine or butter is more healthful is ongoing. Both products seem to have advantages and disadvantages for health.
Butter is a dairy product that manufacturers make by churning cream or milk to separate the solid components from the liquid. People commonly use butter in cooking, baking, and as a spread.
Margarine is a substitute for butter. Manufacturers make margarine from plant-based oils, such as canola oil, palm fruit oil, and soybean oil.
Although butter and margarine have different components, both can contain large amounts of different fats. Not all fats are damaging to health, however, and saturated fats may not be as harmful as researchers once thought, according to one 2018 article. This remains controversial.
That said, consuming excess fat can increase body weight and raise the risk of obesity. Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease. Heart disease is the most common cause of death worldwide. Making the best dietary choices is one way to preserve the health of the heart and blood vessels.
In this article, we discuss the pros and cons of margarine and butter. We also cover which is better for the heart.
The decision of whether to choose butter or margarine depends on the specific dietary needs of the individual.
When the medical community decided that butter was not healthful due to its “bad” saturated fat content, food scientists worked to create margarine from plant oils, which they considered to be more healthful.
The margarine making process is known as hydrogenation. This process transforms liquid vegetable oil into a solid substance at room temperature. However, research eventually found that trans fats — which margarine contains — raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol levels and reduce the levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol.
Margarine therefore developed a reputation for containing a collection of harmful chemicals.
However, producers have now largely eliminated human-made trans fats from the food supply. This came after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled in 2015 that manufacturers should phase these out of products over the following 5 years.
The differences between butter and margarine
The most important difference between the two is that butter is derived from dairy and is rich in saturated fats, whereas margarine is made from plant oils. It used to contain a lot of trans fats, but as mentioned above, manufacturers have now started phasing these out.
The 2017 American Heart Association (AHA) presidential advisory suggests that saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol levels due to its effects on overall levels of cholesterol in the arteries.
However, saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol levels less than trans fats, and it does not affect HDL.
There is no 100% healthful option when it comes to butter or margarine. However, a person can choose the most beneficial option for their diet and needs.
To do so, they can look for margarine with the lowest amount of trans fat, preferably 0 grams (g), and check the ingredients label for partially hydrogenated oils.
Also, be aware that food companies can claim that a product contains zero trans fats if it contains less than 0.5 g per serving. If the margarine contains partially hydrogenated oils, it will contain trans fat, even if the label claims that it has 0 g.
When buying butter, people should try to choose grass-fed varieties, if possible.
Adding butter or margarine to a meal or recipe adds calories that people may not necessarily consider. However, these ingredients can also serve an important purpose in a meal as a fat source.
The body needs fat to function and absorb nutrients. Fat also provides a feeling of satiety. Eating a meal without any fat means that people are likely to feel hungry again shortly after.
Another concern for many people is the cholesterol content of butter. Only animal products contain cholesterol. Most margarine contains little or no cholesterol, whereas butter contains a significant amount of cholesterol.
Some people may need to follow a cholesterol-controlled diet as a lifestyle change to manage heart disease or hypercholesterolemia. Those who need to consume less cholesterol may benefit from switching from butter to margarine.
There are still controversies and differing medical perspectives regarding whether butter is more or less healthful than margarine.
One 2017 study measured the effect of saturated fat intakes from cheese and butter on LDL cholesterol levels in 92 people with abdominal obesity.
Both the cheese and butter test diets increased LDL cholesterol more than the other low fat, high carbohydrate test diets, a high polyunsaturated fat plan, and a plan high in monounsaturated fat.
However, there was no impact on markers of inflammation, blood pressure, or insulin or glucose levels between all of the tested diets. These markers are typically higher than usual in people at risk of cardiovascular disease.
The study leaders recruited healthy adults to use 50 g of one of these fats daily for 4 weeks. Butter increased LDL cholesterol more than either olive oil or coconut oil. However, none of the three test diets led to changes in body weight, body mass index (BMI), abdominal fat, fasting blood sugar, or blood pressure.
The authors therefore concluded that factors other than the type of fat require investigation when considering dietary fat intake and its relationship to human health.
A 2019 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared the effects of oil-based margarine and butter on blood lipid levels in people with and without obesity.
The results revealed lower LDL levels in all the participants who used oil-based margarine instead of butter. Those with obesity showed less of an improvement in LDL levels than those within the ideal BMI range.
Another 2019 comprehensive review evaluated the evidence that a Mediterranean-style diet would help prevent or treat cardiovascular disease.
The authors analyzed results from multiple studies and concluded that no high quality evidence exists to support the effectiveness of a diet higher in unsaturated fats for preventing or treating heart disease.
One tablespoon of unsalted butter weighing 14.2 g contains:
- 102 calories
- 11.5 g of fat
- 7.17 g of saturated fat
- 30.5 milligrams of cholesterol
- 0 g of carbohydrates
- 0 g of sugar
Butter consists of pasteurized cream. Sometimes, manufacturers also add salt. In countries where cows eat grass, butter consumption has associations with a dramatic reduction in heart disease risk.
This may be because grass-fed dairy products are much higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart health.
Regular or non-grass-fed butter contains significantly less, if any, of these nutrients.
Margarine can contain a range of ingredients. Manufacturers add salt and other compounds to margarine to keep the flavor and texture enjoyable for the consumer. These include maltodextrin, soy lecithin, and mono or diglycerides.
They may also use olive oil, flaxseed oil, and fish oil in the production process. Some margarine producers might add vitamin A and salt. However, many types of margarine are free from artificial flavors and preservatives.
Some types of margarine are for use as a spread only, and people should look for alternatives when baking or cooking.
People with soy, dairy, or other allergies or sensitivities need to read the labels and compare brands to find the margarine that best suits their needs and preferences.
The sections below look at three different types of margarine.
One tablespoon of unsalted stick margarine weighing 14.2 g contains:
- 102 calories
- 11.5 g of fat
- 2.16 g of saturated fat
- 0 g of cholesterol
- 0 g of carbohydrates
- 0 g of sugar
This type of margarine may contain slightly fewer calories than butter, but some products may contain trans fats.
Per tablespoon, light margarine or margarine-like spread provides:
- 50 calories
- 5.42 g of fat
- 0.67 g of saturated fat
- 0 g of trans fat
- 0 g of cholesterol
- 0.79 g of carbohydrates
- 0 g of sugar
Light margarine contains a higher percentage of water than traditional margarine, making it lower in calories and fat. Even though it contains less saturated fats than regular margarine, it may still contain some partially hydrogenated oils.
Margarine with phytosterols
Some types of margarine contain plant compounds called phytosterols.
Phytosterols are similar in structure to cholesterol. As a result, they compete with cholesterol for absorption in the body, reducing how much cholesterol the body absorbs. This may bring down levels of blood cholesterol. Margarine with phytosterols contains a blend of oils, such as olive oil or flaxseed oil.
However, a 2011 editorial in the journal Cardiovascular Research suggested that phytosterols may have their own harmful effects on the walls of blood vessels.
The long-running debate about whether butter or margarine is the best choice for health may continue for some time. However, this may not actually benefit the overall discussion about nutrition and health in the long run.
Each person’s body may respond differently to dietary fats based on genetic tendencies, their current health status, sex, and their overall nutritional pattern.
Butter can raise LDL cholesterol, but some studies do not seem to confirm that it adversely affects other risk factors for heart disease or stroke. Also, health experts no longer see oil-based margarine as damaging to health, and it does seem to lower LDL cholesterol.
More recent studies show that they do not affect other risk factors for heart disease or stroke.
The calories in both butter and margarine can add up with regular use in large servings. People following a weight-controlled diet should try to manage total calorie intake. This involves extra consideration when considering spreads and cooking or baking materials.
Many other factors, such as lifestyle and genetics, play a role in the development of cardiovascular disease. The best advice may be to focus on the lifestyle changes that are possible to make to improve overall health and well-being, rather than focusing on a single dietary component.
Having moderate amounts of both butter and margarine on-hand, and alternating margarine with grass-fed butter, might allow a person to reap the benefits of both without contributing to excessive total fat intake.
Is there an alternative to both butter and margarine that provides even more health benefits?
Olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, is a good choice when looking for a healthful alternative to butter and margarine. It is full of antioxidants and can reduce cholesterol and inflammation, as well as improve blood sugar control.
Other creative alternatives with which to replace butter and margarine in baking include avocado, applesauce, pumpkin puree, nut butters, Greek yogurt, mashed banana, and even pureed black beans. All have the potential to increase the nutritional value of foods.
However, a person should do their research on how to correctly substitute.Katherine Marengo LDN, R.D. Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.