There is a lot of confusion permeating the aisles of supermarkets across the country, but perhaps none quite so palpable as that felt when standing between the packages of butter and margarine in the cold, far reaches of the store. One decade, we are encouraged to replace butter with margarine. The next, it’s the very opposite. There are butters blended with oils, oils blended with other oils, infused butters, vegan spreads, local butter, whipped butter, and more marketing hype than the average shopper can even hope to digest.
To answer this butter-versus-margarine question, we have to consider why butter was vilified in the first place (and whether it’s still valid), and why margarine has recently fallen from grace (and whether those claims are warranted).
Butter’s downfall was its saturated fat content, which became the scapegoat for cardiovascular concerns after Ancel Keys’ research in the 1950s’ linking saturated fat to high cholesterol and heart disease. Since then, we have been taught that we need to replace the saturated fat in our diets with unsaturated fats.
Coincidentally, margarine starts as an unsaturated fat (generally a vegetable oil, which is code for corn or soybean oil) but must be tampered with a bit because unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. For margarine to compete with butter in the American kitchen, it had to be the same, spreadable consistency. The tampering that scientists did was hydrogenation, a process that alters the chemical structure of an unsaturated fat to make it look and act more like a saturated fat (butter).
What we did not anticipate, however, was that hydrogenation would actually create a third type of fat: the trans fat (dun dun dunnn). Trans fats are now known to be much worse for our health than saturated fats were ever thought to be. (Tip: read up on trans fats here). The short version of the story is this: margarines made with hydrogenated oils (a.k.a. trans fats) are far worse for your health than butter.
Problem solved, Q.E.D., butter is better than margarine…right?
Not so fast.
Margarines used to contain hydrogenated oils, but companies know that consumers don’t want them in their products, and the FDA has ruled that by 2018, they have to be out of the food supply, anyway. Some have replaced the hydrogenated oils with mono & diglycerides, which can be a sneaky way of hiding trans fats in a product, but manufacturers aren’t required to disclose that information, so it’s hard to tell.
Others, however, don’t, and actually contain pretty straight-forward ingredients. The brands on the shelf that market themselves as being “simple” or “pure” are actually not that bad, and this coming from the dietitian who, full disclosure, spent years on a crusade against margarine. Look for a margarine with a higher total fat and calorie content (this is important; fat is not to be feared), but a much higher emphasis on monounsaturated fats, as opposed to saturated fat (like in butter) or polyunsaturated (like in vegetable oils). The ingredient list should short and pronounceable without a chemistry degree.
So maybe these select few margarines are not particularly worrisome, but are they better than butter?
Ten years ago, I may have (begrudgingly) said yes. They are still more processed than butter, but butter’s saturated fat content would have driven me away. However, more and more these days, Keys’ research is being called into question. Saturated fat, in fact, may not be as strongly linked to heart disease as we once thought. Before you go reaching for that stick of butter, though, keep in mind that even if some of a food can fit into a nutritious diet, loading up on it is not the wisest choice, and large amounts of saturated fat are still not recommended. It is also important to note that not all butter is created equal, and to get the most ideal breakdown of types of fats, you want to look for those pricey sticks made from the milk of pasture-raised cows.
(I have to pause here to acknowledge all the readers falling out of their seats trying to get me to bring up coconut oil as a third alternative. Honestly, it deserves its own article, not a 250 character footnote in this one. Another day, my friends. Another day.)
Really, the answer is not so much “which is better,” but rather, which will you enjoy more in small quantities? This is key. Whichever you choose, select the highest quality possible to maximize benefits and minimize drawbacks, and no matter what, use it sparingly. Nuts, seeds, and avocados are more nutrient-dense and less processed than either spread. Try baking cookies with well-mashed avocado instead of butter, or spreading your morning toast with a little almond butter. These are the real answers in The Great Fat Debate.