Butter or margarine; which is best?
As a nutritionist, “Is this OK?” is the most common question I get asked. Sometimes it’s an easy answer where I can use the ingredients list or nutrition information panel to explain yes or no. Often though, it really depends on your current health status and the rest of your diet to see if there is room for that processed food to fit in.
This is the case for the great butter vs margarine debate. The science sits favorably with margarine providing the community as a whole with more been fits and less risk than butter. But as with most nutrition questions, the answer to “should I use butter or margarine” isn’t so black and white on an individual level.
Butter is made from cream, water and salt. It’s more natural and contains less additives than many margarines, which makes it appealing for many health conscious consumers. But, it’s 80% fat and about 53% of that is saturated fat. Too much of this type of fat may increase your blood cholesterol levels. As it’s solid, it’s harder to spread and which makes it difficult to use sparingly. If you have high cholesterol, use butter in most meals, or struggle to use just a light spread when you do – you might be better off with margarine or at least a blend instead.
What to look for
There’s not a lot of variability between butters besides the salt content. If you’re using it occasionally and sparingly, the salt doesn’t matter. The lack of taste to unsalted butter can be unsatisfying though and may cause you to use more.
Butter blends are made from butter and a plant oil. They contain mostly butter with enough oil to make it spread. They’re usually about 80% fat and 40% saturated fat. Blends are better than butter as they contain less saturated fats and more heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Plus they’re easier to spread so it’s easier to use less.
What to look for
Check the ingredients and look for added canola or olive oil and not vegetable oil. Canola and olive oils are heart healthy, whereas the vegetable oils are blends that vary in composition and are often high in palm oil. Palm oil is a source of saturated fat (which is not what you’re looking for in a plant oil), and often not good for the environment. Most blends will also have some Vitamin A and D added.
Margarine isn’t one molecule (or is it two?) away from plastic. It’s made by mixing plant oils (like canola, sunflower and olive) with milk solids, emulsifiers (to combine them) and Vitamins A and D. Margarine has less fat than margarine, about 70% with 20% of this saturated fat. Unlike overseas, Australian margarine isn’t high in trans fats. Trans fats are the worst types of fat for our health and we get most in our foods from commercially made biscuits, cakes and chips.
There is a downside to margarine though. You’re choosing a margarine because you want the benefits of poly and monounsaturated oils – but they don’t contain as much of those oils as you’d like. Most margarines also contain vegetable oil (palm oil), because it’s cheap. Which is going to increasing the saturated fat content and decrease the amount of good unsaturated fats.
What to look for
There is a lot of variability between margarines though, so make sure you flip it over and look at the ingredients list. You want it to be made from good oils like canola and olive oil. The ingredients list tells you how much (%) is in it – many olive oil spreads only contain around 20% olive oil.
Try to find one without vegetable oil. If you can’t choose the one with the lowest saturated fat.
If you’ve got some heart health issues in your family or you eat quite a lot of animal products, fatty cuts of meat or takeaways – then you’re better off with a good quality margarine than butter. If you have high cholesterol, then the heart healthy margarines containing plant sterols (like logical) are a better choice.
But wait, it isn’t just a choice between butter or margarine
Whether you prefer to use butter or margarine, the recommendations to use it sparingly (thinly) and occasionally (not every day) apply equally. Neither of them are a health food and they are both high fat sources – which means they’re equally high in kilojoules (calories). Try replacing it with these even healthier alternatives and you’ll find that the yellow tub of spread isn’t as essential as you once thought.
- Mashed avocado
- Olive oil (a few drops over tomatoes and basil on toast = yum!)
- Hommus, tzatziki or guacamole
- Mashed roast pumpkin or sweet potato (try this in your next sandwich)
- Cottage cheese
- Natural nut butter (100% nuts)
So, should you use butter or margarine?
Chose the one you like the best. Don’t use too much. Margarine is the best option for heart health. If you’re healthy and don’t eat high fat processed foods or takeaways, then butter used mindfully is fine.
I don’t like the taste of margarine and I find butter too frustrating to spread! So I use a butter blend. I save it for when you can really taste it though (melted through green veggies, or spread on a piece of toast with a cuppa) and use the alternatives listed above as my daily spreads.
Want to read more about healthy oils? Check out my post coconut oil vs olive oil.
Sarah Moore is a mum, and university qualified Registered Nutritionist. She has 10 years’ experience working with families to improve their health and wellbeing. Sarah has a simplistic and practical approach to family nutrition and wants you to know that activated unicorn berries are not the answer to your health and wellness. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram for more healthy tips and tricks.