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Butter vs. Margarine – Which is Healthier?

Dr. Kristie Leong 

Whether you’re looking for a spread for cooking or to enjoy on freshly baked rolls, you have a variety of options to choose from. From dairy based margarines to vegan margarines to real butter, the options are expanding rapidly. If health is of concern, you may be confused as to whether to choose butter or margarine to put on your morning toast. Although margarine was once thought to be the healthy alternative to butter, margarine has received its share of scrutiny recently due to some brands containing hydrogenated oils or trans fats. When it comes to butter vs. margarine, what’s the best choice from a health standpoint?

Margarine can be a source for trans fats

Probably the biggest drawback to margarine is that some brands contain trans fats which have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, probably by lowering levels of HDL, the good cholesterol and raising LDL, the bad cholesterol. Trans fats are of such concern that companies are now required to disclose levels of trans fat contained in products such as margarine. As a result, some margarine manufacturers have removed trans fats from their spreads or lowered the concentration considerably. When reading labels, look closely at the ingredient list to see if it mentions partially hydrogenated oils or fractionated oils. Even if a margarine lists zero grams of trans fats, it can still have small amounts of these unhealthy fats. Solid margarines are the most likely to be high in trans fats. The more liquid the margarine, the lower the trans fat levels, in general.

Butter is usually higher in saturated fat

The other fat that can increase your risk of heart disease are saturated fats. Butter tends to be high in saturated fats which is one reason margarine was lauded as being a healthy substitute for butter for so many years. Most brands of margarine are substantially lower in saturated fats than butter. For example, most solid butter products average around seven grams of saturated fat whereas some margarines such as I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light have only a single gram. Some margarines may still contain high levels of saturated fat, so read labels carefully.

Butter has additional nutritional value margarines don’t have

Although butter has been maligned for being an unhealthy product that view is changing as the potential health benefits of butter are publicized. Butter contains key nutritional ingredients including antioxidants which can help to offset free radical damage to cells. It also is a source of vitamin D and calcium as well as selenium. Another key component, conjugated linoleic acid, is thought to help maintain lean body mass, prevent weight gain, and may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer. The fats found in butter also help to aid in the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals consumed in the diet.

When considering butter vs. margarine, what’s the best alternative? One option is to select a light or whipped butter which is generally lower in calories and saturated fat than regular butter. Land O’Lakes makes a light butter with added canola oil which has only half the calories and fat of regular butter. Canola oil is rich in monounsaturated fats which makes it more heart healthy than regular butter. If used in moderation, this may be a viable option if you’re concerned about health. Another option is to use tub based margarines that are free of trans fats. These tend to be low in saturated fats and can serve as a reasonable butter substitute for cooking and spreading on toast. Some margarines are now also fortified with plant sterols which appear to lower levels of LDLs by about ten percent, although there’s some question as to whether plant sterols may have some negative effects on the heart independent of lowering LDL. You can also consider alternating a trans fat free margarine with a light or whipped butter. Whichever choice you make avoid using these spreads excessively particularly if you’re at high risk of heart disease.

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