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Is margarine healthier than butter? Or vice versa? This choice has been hotly debated for years and has many taking sides. The answer is not simple and depends on your health profile and what you’re looking for from a spread. Here’s my take on this hot issue.
Butter - what is it?
It’s natural, being made from cream, water plus a little salt and has been around ever since humans started herding cows thousands of years ago. It adds a divine flavour to most things – I have friends who are health-conscious but won’t sauté a leek or a mushroom without a nob of butter.
At 80 per cent fat, with two-thirds of that saturated fat (53 per cent), it’s a spread to use sparingly. I love it but I restrict it to those times when nothing else will do – say on hot toast. Apart from that, I go for the many alternative things you can spread on bread, sandwiches and crackers – see here.
Margarine - what is it?
On the other hand, margarine has only been with us for over one hundred years. It was invented during the 1870s in France when the Emperor Napoleon III was looking for a substitute for butter for troops in the field on his many military campaigns.
These days, margarine is made from oils, usually canola, olive or sunflower, which are mixed with a solid vegetable fat base (which is what turns it into a semi-solid spread) along with water, skim milk, emulsifiers to keep everything blended, along with added vitamin A and D.
It offers a spread that is either predominantly poly-unsaturated (if made from sunflower oil) or mono-unsaturated (if made from canola or olive oil). Most margarines have less total fat than butter with some 70 per cent or less - you're eating more water and less oil. It contains around 20 per cent saturated fatty acids.
Margarine and butter are both used to enliven our daily bread and they both contain the same amount of total fat – around 70 to 80 per cent - and kilojoule count, but there the similarity ends. They differ in the type of fatty acids (the component building blocks of fats) that they contain. One rounded teaspoon of either, which is roughly the amount that you get from a single serve portion pack in restaurants, gives you 7 grams of fat and 262 kilojoules or 62 calories.
The weigh up
If you and your family are in good health and your overall diet is healthy (not a lot of take-aways or fatty snacks) and you want as natural a diet as possible, then butter is fine in moderation.
A blended butter-oil product is a halfway option and gives a good compromise between butter’s taste, spreadability with less saturated fat. Read their pros and cons in my assessment.
Margarine for your heart
If you have high cholesterol or a family history of heart disease, then margarine is a wiser choice for a couple of reasons:
1. Margarine looks after your heart better
At 20 per cent saturated fat, margarine has less ‘bad’ saturated fat and more heart-healthy unsaturates than butter. It has no cholesterol. It’s the spread of choice for the Heart Foundation in all their recommendations. Up until the 1990s, margarines had a lot more trans fat due to the hydrogenation process that turns liquid oils in a semi-solid spread. This created synthetic trans fatty acids that raise LDL- and lower HDL-cholestero, both considered bad for heart disease risk.
These days, virtually all the margarines/spreads in Australia are free of trans fats (less than 1per cent), thanks to the Heart Foundation Tick program as well as responsible manufacturers. This situation is different from that in the USA and UK. So take care when reading articles from overseas as they don’t apply here in Australia.
The only exceptions are a few of the cheaper or generic margarines which you would recognise as hard (stick) margarines with the spreadability of butter. Avoid these ones and go for the softer types and you’ll be fairly sure of not buying trans fats.
For comparison, butter has 53 per cent saturated fat, 230mg cholesterol per 100g and no synthetic trans-fat but it does have a small amount of natural trans fats (4-5%) which are created by all ruminant animals (such as cows, sheep and goats).
In the past, liquid oils were hydrogenated to create margarine but this also created unhealthy trans fats. Trans fats are formed when liquid vegetable oils are hardened or hydrogenated (treated with hydrogen) to turn them into semi-solid fats. Hydrogenation changes a fatty acid's molecular structure and turns a portion of it into the trans form. If in doubt, you can check how much trans fat there is using the Nutrition Panel on the bottom of the tub – it should list trans fat as less than 0.1g per 100g or <0.1%.
These days margarine is made solid by a process called inter-esterification which doesn’t result in trans fat but which is also not natural and may turn out to be just as undesirable.
2. Margarine can be used sparingly
Margarine is soft and spreadable straight from the fridge, something that’s hard to do with butter. You use less which is good for your waistline and ultimately your heart. In fact, a US study of 46 families reported that swapping from butter to margarine successfully lowered blood cholesterol levels, but this effect depended on overall body weight.
If you need to lose weight, margarine is better because it spreads more thinly, so saving you kilojoules. And it’s only 70 per cent fat (with some even lower at 60 per cent and 50 per cent as light spreads) compared to butter at 80 per cent. Softer margarines have more unsaturated fats than harder margarines
Yes butter’s more natural with only three ingredients compared to margarine’s 12 or so.
Butter (3 ingredients)
Cream, water, salt.
Regular margarine eg Meadow Lea (12 ingredients)
Vegetable oils 65% (containing 52% canola & sunflower oil), water, salt, emulsifiers (soy lecithin, 471), preservative 202, food acid (lactic), milk solids, maltodextrin, natural colour (beta-carotene), vitamins A & D, flavour.
What the additives are used for:
- The two emulsifiers keep everything blended and stop separation - soy lecithin is widely regarded as safe, 471 is mono-and di-glycerides of fatty acids, one of the additives I don’t think you need to worry about
- 202 is potassium sorbate needed to stop the oils going rancid or moulds growing in the oil-water mix
- Lactic acid is a food acid (you find it in yoghurt) that adds a pleasant tang
- Maltodextrin is a modified starch that keeps things mixed together and thickens slightly
- Beta-carotene adds a pleasant yellow-orange colour. It’s a precursor to vitamin A and is found in carrots, pumpkin and other orange produce. It makes margarine look more like butter – better than the days when it was white.
- No-one really knows what’s in flavours but I suspect it would be to add a buttery flavour
How butter stacks up against margarine
|Butter, regular eg Devondale||81||53||776|
|Butter, light eg Devondale Light||40||19||380|
|Spreadable butter eg Western Star Original||70||31||480|
|Speadable light butter eg Western Star Light||40||19||511|
|Canola regular eg Gold'n Canola||65||16||350|
|Canola light eg Gold'n Canola Light||46||11||330|
|Meadow Lea regular||70||18||790|
|Meadow Lea salt-reduced||70||19||380|
|Meadow Lea light||49||12||340|
- You have to make the choice between naturalness and flavour OR less saturated fat and spreadability. Whichever you go for, look for a spread that’s salt-free or salt-reduced (with 1% salt) and use it sparingly. We don’t need heaps of either butter or margarine.
- Use oils where you can, say for cooking or dipping, as they are closer to nature, have no trans fats and are rich in the beneficial unsaturated fats. I like to use olive oil for salads and general cooking and peanut oil for stir-frying.
I go for a butter-oil blend that I can spread straight out of the fridge and tastes like butter but I keep it mainly for toast. I like to use these 7 other alternatives on my bread.
Forget light butters or margarines which have a higher water content and make your toast soggy and spit if you use them in cooking.
Note: Most margarines today must be called ‘spreads’ as they contain only 60 or 70 per cent fat. Technically only a product with 80 per cent fat can be called margarine so it is an exact match for butter. Here we’ve used the term margarine to cover all the non-butter spreads at the supermarket for ease of understanding.