Butter or Margarine?

A question people don’t take lightly!  Most people I have ‘argued’ with about this have found very justifiable, researched-backed arguments to defend their taste!  Here are all the major facts to help you make the best individualised choice for your health:

Let’s start with Margarine:

Why do people choose it?

  1. It is not an animal fat which many associate with heart disease
  2. It has a longer shelf life and
  3. It’s generally less expensive

Margarine has been making a comeback for the past couple of years for the simple reason that it is no longer hydrogenated and therefore, no longer made of trans-fats.  Scientists have recently come up with a new way to solidify vegetable oils called interesterification, where the product remains highly synthetic and transformed but contains zero trans-fats.  To create this new margarine, the composition of the oils used are molecularly altered.  Research on the pros (mostly sponsored by the food industry) exists but according to many, this fat is too new to be proven safe for human consumption.  Is history repeating itself?  The food industry had consumers convinced for half a century that their trans-fat-filled margarine, was better for their health than butter.  We now know that trans-fats are linked to breast cancer and heart disease.  Now consumers are being led to believe margarine made from interesterified fat is healthier than butter.  I just had déjà-vu.

One problem with interesterified fat is that the oils used to make the margarine are not necessarily ‘cold pressed’ – see the article on oils for more on this. The process of interesterification also involves heating the oils, which means damaging their nutritional properties again. New research is also arising showing that these fats may lower your good cholesterol (HDL) and increase your blood sugar.

What about omega-3 fortified margarine?  Researchers are still stating that the best way to get your omega-3s is by consuming fish three times per week.  Not enough research supports the benefits on cardiovascular health of these products.


The nutritional properties of butter are resumed in the fact that it is a good source of vitamins A and D.

The French paradox is always a subject that comes up when discussing this issue with butter lovers.  The French, who are known for their diet rich in cream, butter and meat, do not suffer from a high rate of heart disease. Combined with these saturated fat-rich foods are an abundance of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables and very little refined foods.  This is very different from the standard American diet.  This being said, there is also research that attributes cardiovascular disease with a diet rich in saturated fats.  In fact the first dietary change recommended by the WHO (World Health Organisation) for the prevention of cardiovascular disease is a reduction in saturated fats.  Have you ever heard of a vegetarian with a heart condition?

Much research also suggests that there is no link with the high cholesterol foods we eat (such as butter) and the blood cholesterol level.  Other factors again come into play and the entire diet must be looked at, as well as a person’s life style.

The three major problems I have with butter are:

  1. Non-organic butter contains a high concentration of pesticides, herbicides (from the grain the cows are fed) and antibiotics.  Whatever is given to the cows also ends up in the milk.  The concentration of these chemicals in butter is much higher than in milk due to the fact that these chemicals remain in the fatty part of the milk.
  2. Butter is a dairy product and holds all of the disadvantages I’ve discussed in my ‘To dairy or not to dairy’ article.
  3. Lastly, many people like to bake and cook with butter.  It is important to note that butter’s smoking point (which is the temperature at which the fat becomes toxic) is 90º C (194ºF).  This means that baked goods heated at the normal 350 º F should not contain butter and that pan frying should be done with oils that have higher smoking points (such as olive oil).

Choosing the better of two evils?

If you are adamant on choosing one or the other, your healthier choice depends on your current eating habits.  If you are a person who eats a lot of cheese, meat and cold cuts you are already getting plenty of saturated fat and do not need anymore. Therefore, monounsaturated fats such as margarine (or vegetable oils) are a healthier bet.

On the other hand, if your diet contains more grains, beans, nuts and seeds, fish and low-fat dairy, moderate butter consumption would generally not be a health threat for you and would be a more natural choice.

Seeing beyond butter and margarine: Healthy Alternatives

If you are open to change, try…

  • Dipping bread in oil (or oil and vinegar)
  • Putting olive oil in a small, wide neck container, in the refrigerator – it solidifies and enables you to spread
  • Avocado spread on bread, toast or crackers
  • Nut or seed butter: unsaturated fat containing protein
  • Appreciating the pure taste of fresh, high quality bread!
  • For baking alternatives, see the article on oils

Healthier Compromises:

  • Plant based saturated fats such as coconut oil: increased research is demonstrating that these saturated fats are not as harmful as believed and in fact contain many nutritional benefits.  Coconut oil is considered by many as a superfood.
  • Mixed butter and olive oil spread:  mix melted butter and olive oil in a small, wide neck container, put in the refrigerator – it solidifies and enables you to spread.  This way you keep all of the butter taste you enjoy and also have the nutritional properties of olive oil.
  • Ghee or clarified butter has a higher fusion point than butter, meaning that if you like to cook with butter, this is a better choice as you can cook with it at temperatures of up to 150˚C  (300˚F).   It also has a longer shelf life of up to 6 months.  Although it is sold as a health food, it still has the same disadvantages as butter regarding its high saturated fat and cholesterol content (even higher since it no longer contains water or milk solids).
  • Organic butter: depending on what the cows were fed, it’s more likely to be richer in vitamins and minerals and has the advantage of not containing the pesticides, herbicides and hormones that normal butter does.