The debate about whether margarine or butter is best for your health is ongoing. In this article, we discuss the pros and cons of margarine and butter and ask which is best for our heart. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer.

Butter is a dairy product made by churning cream or milk to separate the solid components from the liquid. Butter is commonly used in cooking, baking, and as a spread.

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.

Heart health is a common concern; as such, making the best dietary choices is an important issue. Here we will help decide whether butter or margarine is best.

Fast facts on butter vs. margarine:

  • The choice is really between trans fats (margarine) or saturated fats (butter).
  • Trans fats raise bad cholesterol (LDL), whilst lowering good cholesterol (HDL).
  • Saturated fats raise bad cholesterol (less so than trans fats) and do not affect HDL.

The decision of whether to choose butter or margarine is dependent on the individual and their specific dietary needs.

Maintaining proper nutrition is a personal undertaking. What makes sense for one person might not be in the best interest of the next.

What's the difference between butter and margarine?

A small scoop of butter.Share on Pinterest
Butter, pictured here, has a firmer consistency than margarine and contains more saturated fat.

The most important difference is that butter contains saturated fat and many margarines contain trans fats.

Trans fat raises LDL (bad) cholesterol significantly while lowering HDL (good) cholesterol.

There is not a truly healthful option when it comes to butter or margarine, but the following tips can help make choosing the best butter or margarine easier:

  • Look for margarine with the least amount of trans fat - preferably 0 grams - and be sure to check the ingredient label for partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Be aware that food companies can claim a product contains zero trans fat as long as it contains less than 0.5 grams per serving.
  • If the margarine contains partially hydrogenated oils, it will contain trans fat even if the label claims 0 grams.
  • If buying butter, choose grass-fed when possible.
  • Choose a brand that tastes good - this depends on the individual, but if a person doesn't like it they are likely to use too much to compensate for bland or missing flavors.
  • Trans fats harden at room temperature, so the harder the margarine, the more trans fats it contains.

Adding butter to foods adds calories you may not necessarily think about. That being said, butter can be important in a meal because it adds a fat source. Our body needs fat to function and absorb nutrients; fat also provides a feeling of satiety in meals - if you eat a meal without any fat, you are likely to feel hungry again shortly after.

Cholesterol is found only in animal products, and coconut and palm oil. Most margarines contain little or no cholesterol, whereas butter contains a significant amount of cholesterol.

One tablespoon of butter contains:

  • 100 calories
  • 12 grams of fat
  • 7 grams of saturated fat
  • 0.5 grams of trans fat 31 milligrams of cholesterol
  • 0 grams of carbohydrates
  • 0 grams of sugar

Butter is simply made of 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 important for heart health. Grass-fed butter also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which helps improve body composition and protect against cancer. Short and medium-chain triglycerides are also present which are helpful for the gut bacteria, immune function, and metabolism.

Regular or non-grass-fed butter contains significantly less, if any, of these nutrients.

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Margarine, pictured here, is soft even when refrigerated and contains more trans fats than butter.

Margarines can contain a range of ingredients. Salt and other compounds that keep the flavor and texture of margarine acceptable to the consumer such as maltodextrin, soy lecithin, and mono- or diglycerides are commonly added.

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.

Below we give the nutritional outline of three common types of margarine.

Stick 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
  • 0 grams of sugar

This type of margarine may contain slightly fewer calories than butter, but it does often contain trans fat.

Light margarine

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
  • 0 grams of sugar per tablespoon

Light margarine contains a higher percentage of water than traditional margarine, making it lower in calories and fat. Even though it contains less saturated and trans fat than regular margarine, it may still contain some partially hydrogenated oils.

Margarine with phytosterols

Margarine with phytosterols contains:

  • 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
  • 0 grams of sugar

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.

While a hydrogenated, trans-fat containing margarine is never recommended, the choice between butter and non-hydrogenated margarine is less clear. Your own health goals, medical conditions, and taste preferences can guide you.

Having both on hand, and alternating margarine with grass-fed butter might allow you to reap the benefits of both without contributing to excessive saturated fat intake.