Butter vs. Margarine: Is Either One Healthier?

The butter-margarine debate is not a new one. People believed we found a healthier alternative to butter when margarine came along. After all, the majority of margarines contain healthy fats (mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids) and no cholesterol because they’re made from vegetable oil, compared to butter which contains higher amounts of cholesterol and saturated (bad) fat. But then we discovered margarines contained trans fatty acids and all bets were off.

So what’s the consensus today?

The reality is, neither is the ideal choice, but here are some things to consider when making your decision:

Not all margarine is created equal. When shopping for margarine, keep in mind that the more solid the margarine (i.e. stick margarine is more solid than tub), the more hydrogenated oils it contains, which means more trans fatty acids per serving. Look for tub or liquid (spray) margarines with zero grams of trans fats and no more than 1 gram of saturated fat per tablespoon. Be aware that labeling laws allow companies to indicate zero grams trans fat on the nutrition label if the product contains <0.5 grams per serving. The best way to determine whether or not a product contains trans fat is to check the ingredient label. If it includes “partially hydrogenated oil”, the product contains some amount of trans fat. These small amounts of trans fat can add up if the product is consumed in excess.

Butter is butter. Not much can be done to improve the nutritional quality of this food. However, whipped butter may be a good alternative if you’re looking for something to spread on bread or muffins or toss with cooked pasta because it offers the flavor of butter without as many calories or fat grams per serving. Butter blends (usually available in tub form and blended with vegetable oil) are another alternative. But cooking and baking with whipped or light butter will not necessarily yield the same results as using real butter. Consider using healthier oils (such as olive or canola) for cooking and saving the real deal for special baked treats. It’s also never a bad idea to substitute low fat plain yogurt, applesauce, or pureed prunes (work best in chocolate-based desserts) in place of some (or all) of the butter called for in dessert recipes.

The bottom line: Use margarine and butter in moderation. Opt for healthier cooking oils the majority of the time. Savor real butter and bread on occasion and use it in your favorite pie crust or chocolate chip cookie recipe. If you prefer margarine, softer is better, but keep in mind it still contains as many calories as butter and may not necessarily be trans fat free.

What’s your stance on the debate?

Carolyn Anne Klammer-Hodges is a food writer and registered dietitian from Cleveland, Ohio.

Related: How Can I Make Soft Whipped Butter at Home?

(Images: Land O' Lakes; Unilever)