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Toast without butter is like macaroni without cheese—sad and incomplete. Same goes for popcorn, especially at the movie theater. For years, though, we’ve been told to cut butter from our diets. Those delectable, creamy French dishes a la Julia Child are frowned upon by nutrition experts and cardiologists. Now we’re being told that margarine, once touted as butter’s healthier stand-in, could be even worse. It’s time to cut to the chase—or in this case, the stick—to find out who wins the battle of butter vs. margarine.
Butter vs. Margarine: What’s the Difference?
First, butter comes from a cow while margarine is made from processed vegetable oils. Or, as Lauren Minchen, a New York-based registered dietitian explains, “Butter is a naturally occurring food that is made from milk and dairy fat, while margarine is a food product made from vegetable oils that have been hydrogenated to substitute for butter in order to reduce saturated fat content.”
Is Butter Bad for You?
We wish we could offer a simple “yes” or “no” to the long-debated question “Is butter bad for you”—but the answer isn’t so straightforward.
Instead, we’ll leave you with “kind of.” Here’s why: In addition to boasting worthy nutrients like vitamin K2 and fatty acids such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), omega-3s, and butyrate, butter contains saturated fat, which increases our bad (a.k.a. LDL) cholesterol.
For years, we’ve been warned to avoid saturated fat. It leads to heart disease, after all. Some research, however, has proven that diets high in saturated fat can change the dimension of LDL cholesterol particles to a larger, more benign size, meaning they’re less of a heart risk. Scientists also found that eating saturated fat could raise our levels of good (a.k.a. HDL) cholesterol.
To further muddy the waters (or, in this case, bread), the findings presented at a workshop about the impact of saturated fats on the risk of coronary heart disease were conflicting. Some researchers found no increased risk of heart disease for those consuming high levels of saturated fat while others noted that reducing the intake of saturated fat had little impact on a person’s risk of stroke. That said, if you’re consuming butter in small amounts (as the majority of us do) you’re really not going to ingest enough of the positive nutrients or negative fats to make a difference, especially if you’re healthy and active.
So, what’s a butter-loving person to do? If you’re healthy, slap it on—but in moderation. If you’re at risk of heart disease, however, your best bet is to steer clear.
“If someone has extremely elevated cholesterol and a history of heart disease, he/she might wish to avoid or limit [the] consumption of butter,” says Rochelle Sirota, a New York-based certified dietitian-nutritionist.
(To learn more about the debate over shunning saturated fats in favor of the polyunsaturated, vegetable-based variety, read our post: Oxidized Cholesterol & Vegetable Oils Identified as the Main Cause of Heart Disease.)
WHAT IS TRANS FAT?
This heart-stopping fat is found in partially hydrogenated oils used to make processed foods (hello margarine, French fries and potato chips). It not only increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, but ups your chances of becoming diabetic, having a stroke, developing cancer or becoming infertile, among numerous other conditions. To learn more about trans fats, read our post: Why Are Trans Fats Bad? Even the FDA Agrees They’re Worse Than Expected.
Butter vs. Margarine: Which Is Healthier?
I can’t believe it’s not…margarine? Butter wins this battle hands down, say both Minchen and Sirota. “Butter has many potentially beneficial qualities, while margarine, being highly processed from poor quality, highly unstable vegetable oils, does not,” explains Sirota. Originally developed as a healthier alternative to butter, margarine is made from highly processed, polyunsaturated fats. There’s nothing natural about it.
Think about it: Margarine is made from vegetable oils, which are liquid when stored at room temperature. To make them solid, like butter, they’ve had to undergo multiple chemical changes, which often results in the production of trans fats—yuck!
Another downside: Margarine is high in omega 6 fatty acids, which Sirota says we consume in hefty amounts, resulting in inflammation. Plus, the oils in margarine can degrade when exposed to high cooking heats, increasing their levels of trans fats.
OLD-SCHOOL BUTTER: DIY
Making butter at home was far more common in earlier generations than it is today, but there are folks who still do their own churning. If you’re curious about the process, check out How to Make Butter in Your Own Kitchen at Countryside Daily.
What Is the Healthiest Butter?
If you’re going to opt for butter vs. margarine, choose one from grass-fed, antibiotic-free, and hormone-free cows. It contains higher levels of important nutrients such as Vitamin K2 (which can help prevent diseases such as cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease), CLA (which can fight cancer and possibly lower your percentage of body fat), Butyrate (which battles inflammation and boosts digestive health), and omega-3s (which improve brain power). Butter from grain-fed cows, on the other hand, doesn’t boast as many nutrients.
Another tip: Choose butter produced during the summer months. “It is thought that butter from warmer seasons is richer in desirable nutrients, including lauric and linoleic acids and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K,” says Sirota.
What’s the Healthiest Spread?
When it comes to choosing the best toast topping, forget comparing butter vs. margarine. Instead, opt for heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) or avocado oil, says Minchen. Sirota also suggests using almond, cashew, or pecan butters or tahini for a flavor, protein, and nutrient boost. (What about peanut butter? Click here to read Is Peanut Butter Healthy?)
SOURCES & RESOURCES
For related reading, please visit these posts:
- What Is Ezekiel Bread, and How Healthy Is It?
- Healthy Bread: Is There Such a Thing?
- Cooking with Coconut Oil: Not a Healthy Option, Says the American Heart Association
- 5 Simple Substitutions for Egg- and Dairy-Free Recipes
- Monounsaturated Fatty Acids—MUFA —Can Fight Belly Fat and Increase Longevity
- Junk Food Effects: Stay Away from These 6 Foods and Beverages
- Processed Foods: 5 Reasons to Avoid Them
This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated.