Margarine Vs. Butter – Which Is Healthier For You?

A common question that comes up among people looking to improve their diet to lead a healthier life is whether butter or margarine is better for their health.  Butter and margarine are used very regularly in cooking and as condiments, so it is best to consider which to use instead of trying to cut them completely out of your diet.  It is important to be aware that when considering the health benefits of margarine versus butter it can get complicated because there are different varieties of each.  Not only that, but we have to define what ‘healthy’ means to determine which is healthiest. For the purpose of defining what is ‘healthy’ we will consider how each affects cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease.  We can also take into account the issue of weight gain but that can be a problem with both and is easily solved through moderation.

Margarine Vs. Butter – Which Is Healthier For You?

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Nutritional Value of Butter

Butter is created simply by churning cream or milk, generally cow’s milk.  Some manufacturers of butter add preservatives and flavoring so watch the food labels to know what is actually in your food.  It is best to find butter where the only ingredient is cream.

One tablespoon of butter contains:

  • 100 Calories
  • 11 g – Total Fat
  • 7 g – Saturated Fat
  • 0.3 g – Trans Fat
  • 30 mg – Cholesterol

It is quickly seen that butter not only packs a lot of calories but it is also loaded with saturated fat.

Nutritional Value of Margarine

This is where things get confusing.  The term ‘margarine’ can actually be used for several different products.  Technically, margarine is a term used for many different butter substitutes.

In the past, margarine was created from liquid vegetable oil.  It was made into a solid through a process called hydrogenation, which is when hydrogen is added to the oils.  The problem with this is that trans fats are created during this process.  As trans fats gained a bad name most margarine manufacturers stopped using hydrogenation in creating many brands of margarine.  These varieties contain no trans fats and are referred to as non-hydrogenated margarine.

One tablespoon of non-hydrogenated margarine contains:

  • 75 Calories
  • 8 g – Total Fat
  • 2 g – Saturated Fat
  • 0 g – Trans Fat
  • 0 mg – Cholesterol

The important thing to notice here is that the amount of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol is significantly lower in margarine.

Which is healthier – butter or margarine?

It is quickly seen that butter not only packs a lot of calories but it is also loaded with saturated fat and trans fat.  Both of these are known to increase the levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ cholesterol).  An increase in LDL cholesterol is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and ultimately a heart attack or stroke.  Therefore, we want to make sure that the amount of saturated fats and trans fats is limited in our diets. Due to the increased levels of saturated and trans fats it is fairly clear to declare:

  • Margarine is the healthier choice.

Be aware that margarine still packs a lot of calories in a little space.  Therefore, even though we have declared margarine healthier it does not mean you can start lathering all of your food in piles of it.  You still want to maintain moderation.  Gaining weight will only counteract any positive effects you receive by switching to margarine.  Weight gain not only is linked to increased cholesterol levels, but is responsible for many other health conditions.

Even healthier margarine – cholesterol-lowering spreads In recent years it was discovered that phytosterols (plant sterols and stanols) have the ability to reduce LDL cholesterol.  We will leave the discussion of what exactly phytosterols are and how they are able to lower cholesterol, but just know that they are found in plants and that it is practically impossible to get the amount of phytosterols in your diet to make any significant difference in cholesterol levels.

The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) recommends that 2-3 grams of phytosterols are consumed each day to see a drop in LDL cholesterol of up to 10%.  However, the average vegetarian diet includes only 300 mg or less of plant sterols, which is only 10-15% of the recommend dose.  Luckily, scientists have been able to isolate phytosterols and have begun adding them to margarines (as well as many other products).

There are now a large number of cholesterol-lowering spreads available, such as Benecol, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Promise Activ, and Smart Balance Light.  These all contain enough phytosterols that you can get your daily recommended dose in just 2-3 tablespoons.

So, not only is margarine lower in trans fat and saturated fat, but phytosterol-fortified spreads can actually REDUCE your LDL cholesterol!

With these new spreads it is quite easy to determine a winner between margarine vs. butter when it comes to which is healthier.