Guest Blogger: Butter vs Margarine

Posted: March 4, 2011 in Food, Guest Blogger

RachelOur guest blogger today is Rachel Hewitt, a Nutritionist based here in Ottawa, Ontario.

Today she discusses the differences between butter and margarine and which is better for you.

The HistoryButter vs Margerine
Butter has been eaten by humans for thousands of years.  It wasn’t until the last few decades that it got a bad reputation because of its high cholesterol and saturated fat content.   Margarine was originally marketed because it was cheaper to make than butter.  Food manufacturers made us believe that margarine was the butter replacement of choice claiming that it was better for your health.

Unfortunately, margarine was initially made by hydrogenating oils.  Hydrogenated oils are made by forcing hydrogen gas into the oil at high pressure which makes the oil solid and extends its shelf life.   This was a bonus for food manufacturers because it was cheap to make and lasted longer.   The truth soon came out that these hydrogenated oils created dangerous trans fats which are worse than the saturated fats that they were replacing. Thankfully, most margarines are not made with hydrogenated oils anymore but are they a healthier option?

Many margarines carry claims that they are “heart healthy” and “low in saturated fats and cholesterol”, but how do we know if they are really healthy?

I have a couple of rules that I follow when it comes to choosing foods:
1. The less ingredients the better.
2. Stay away from anything imitation (usually means there will be a lot of additives).

Let’s start by comparing the ingredients of a popular margarine:
Canola and sunflower oils 74%, water, modified palm and palm kernel oils 6%, salt 1.5%, buttermilk powder 1%, soy lecithin 0.2%, natural & artificial flavor, potassium sorbate, vegetable monoglycerides, citric acid, alpha-tocopherol acetate, calcium disodium EDTA, vitamin A palmitate, beta-carotene, vitamin D3.

Although this margarine does not contain any hydrogenated oils, it is full of artificial flavours and preservatives so it looks and tastes similar to butter.  It is made with unsaturated oils, which in moderation can be healthy.  Unfortunately, these oils are very unstable meaning that when they are exposed to oxygen, heat, or liquid, they become ‘rancid’. In other words they create a large amount of free radicals which when consumed are bad for us (leading to problems like aging, tissue damage, and in some cases disease such as heart disease). It is not that polyunsaturated fat is bad for us, but it is bad for us when it is oxidized and consumed too frequently.The problem is that almost all of the polyunsaturated vegetable oils we consume (such as that in margarine) are already rancid, even before they are purchased (another reason for the preservatives).

Now let’s look at the ingredients of an unsalted butter:


So butter is the clear winner!

Not only that, butter is a source of fat soluble nutrients such as A, D, E and K and selenium.  Butter is also a source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which is thought to help maintain lean body mass, prevent weight gain and may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.

But What about the Saturated Fat and Cholesterol?
Saturated fat and cholesterol have been demonized as causing coronary heart disease (CHD).  However, in a recent review of research called “Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review,”(1) the authors found “a weak and non-significant positive association between dietary cholesterol and risk of CHD.”  Many studies have shown that the problem is not the intake of dietary cholesterol but the consumption of too many vegetable oils, hydrogenated oils, processed foods, sugars, refined carbohydrates, as well as smoking, stress, and a lack of exercise. Saturated fats have numerous beneficial functions in our body including hormone production, calcium absorption, and cell wall integrity.  Since butter is made from a saturated fat it is also more stable than vegetable oils for cooking.

Now, just because you know butter is better does not necessarily mean you should smother it on everything you put in your mouth.  But if you want a “buttery spread” go for an organic, unsalted butter. Obviously, use it in moderation and don’t use it every day.

What I Use
If given the choice between butter or margarine, I always choose butter (if I absolutely need it on something, like my dad’s homemade zucchini bread straight out of the oven…mmmm).  If only margarine is available I won’t use it.  At home I use Coconut oil (non-hydrogenated of course) as a butter substitute.  Coconut oil is rich in Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) which act like a kindling for your metabolism and increase it.  If you go to the weight loss section of any health food store you will see MCT oil sold as a supplement. MCTs are directly utilized by the body and transported directly to the liver (2). Thus, they are not transported or deposited to tissues such as adipose (fat) tissue. Evidence suggests that increased consumption of MCTs increases burning of calories, increases satiety, helps decrease the amount of fat stored in adipose tissue and may help control body weight. Coconut oil is also antibacterial and antiparasitc and it is a high source of lauric acid.  Extra virgin coconut oil is the best and has a nice coconut flavour.

1. Frank B. Hu, et al., Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2001;20 (1) 5-19.
2. St. Onge MP. Dietary fats, teas, dairy, and nuts: potential functional foods for weight control? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2005;81 (1):7-15.

  1. Melanie says:

    Wow, my husband and I have been using unsalted butter since we moved in together ten years ago and have always received a lot of negative comments from our parents about how ‘bad’ butter is for us. It is really great to see that we were actually making the healthier choice.

  2. […] healthier options for the few calories you’re saving. You can learn about the differences of margarine vs butter here from Ottawa Nutritionist Rachel Hewitt. Keep checking back and I’ll have a guest blogger talk about the health benefits/risks of […]

  3. moose says:

    It boils down to personal preference…..As far as I’m concern they are both nutritious and healthy if taken in moderation. Some types margarine are better especially those Smart Balance brand which is patented and formulated using the American Hearth Association (AHA) step 1 diet.

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