Is margarine really healthier than butter? It depends

John asked if I’d do a butter vs. margarine post concerning the role of each in promoting (or not promoting) heart health. There are good and bad points about both, and it might even surprise you to learn that not all margarines are same.

A little background on HDL and LDL

First, a little background on lipids. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) has been linked with increased risk of having a heart attack. Higher levels of serum LDL correlate with cardiac risk. High density lipoprotein (HDL), often called “good” cholesterol, seems to be cardioprotective. High levels of HDL seem to decrease cardiac risk. Saturated fats when eaten seem to increase LDL cholesterol. Saturated fats are in high concentrations in dairy products, some cuts of meat, palm oil and coconut oil. Interestingly, saturated fats can raise HDL, but by such a small amount that its effect is negligible compared to the amount that it reuses LDL.

Unsaturated fats can be broken down into monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). Both MUFA and PUFA can lower LDL. (The Mediterranean diet is high in unsaturated fatty acids especially MUFA, and this diet seems to lower the cardiac risk.) Trans-fatty acids are often artificially produced. They are known to raise LDL AND lower HDL. The body seems to “recognize” these as saturated fats even though, biochemically, they are not saturated fats.

To summarize: Eat less saturated, fat, substitute unsaturated fat to replace the saturated fat, eliminate trans-fats totally, eat lower-cholesterol foods.

Objective – decrease plasma LDL and increase HDL.

N.B. The study of lipids and atherosclerosis is evolving. There is some dispute about part of the above information. But at this time, most research seems to support the above. Additionally, organizations like the American Heart Association, recommend lowering LDL, raising HDL, decreasing saturated fat, increasing unsaturated fats and not eating trans fats.

Also, be aware that HDL and LDL are not the only factors that can contribute to atherosclerotic heart disease. There are others such as triglycerides and Apoliproprotein A. And cardiac risk is also modified by: amount of exercise, genetics, obesity, concurrent medical conditions, smoking, etc.

Butter via Shutterstock

Butter via Shutterstock

Now to butter and margarine and their effects on heart health


Butter can be up to 80% fat. It has two compounds that can increase cholesterol – cholesterol itself and saturated fat. Cholesterol is a fat that is only found in animal products such as meat, milk, eggs, butter and other similar foods. Eaten dietary cholesterol can increase plasma cholesterol. How much cholesterol from the diet increases plasma cholesterol depends on genetics, among other things. Some people absorb dietary cholesterol very well and therefore, their plasma cholesterol levels increase. Other people don’t have this happen to such a great degree.

The other problem with butter is that it has a lot of saturated fat. A lot. It is recommended that daily dietary intake of saturated fat be no more than about 15 grams per day. One tablespoonful of butter has over 7 grams of saturated fat (see examples below).

Butter has about 0.5g of trans fat per 1 tablespoon serving.


Margarine is made from vegetable oils, not milk. Though sometimes milk or milk-components can be added. Vegetable oil margarine, by definition, has no cholesterol since it’s derived from plants. So, it that respect, it’s already superior to butter. The problem is that vegetable oils are – oils and are liquid. To make them harder (and more resistant to spoiling) they are partially hydrogenated. Hydrogenating vegetable oils produces trans-fats. Trans-fats are not heart health at all. It’s recommended that trans fats be kept to an absolute minimum, certainly at or below 2 grams per day.

Some margarines can have up to 3 grams of trans-fats per serving – that’s 50% more than the recommended daily maximum in just one tablespoon of margarine.

A general rule of thumb is that the “harder” the margarine is, the more heavily hydrogenated it is, thus having more trans-fat. So stick margarine has more trans-fat than soft tub margarine and spray-on forms (liquid) have the least. Note that the nutrition label on the food package can say “0 trans-fat” or “No trans-fat” as long as the trans-fat content is below 0.5 grams per serving. So even a trans-fat “free” product can have trans-fats present. So, it you see the words “partially hydrogenated” on a product, you know that trans-fats are present even if not reflected on the label.

So, softer, low trans-fat margarine is better to use than butter from a cardiovascular standpoint. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have some butter, just use it sparingly and not often. Don’t use it for cooking or baking, use vegetable oils (not palm oil or coconut oil) where possible.

If your cholesterol is high you might want to talk to your doctor about using spreads that contain plant stanols and sterols (line Benecol and Promise Activ). These might help to reduce your cholesterol, too.

Butter vs. Margarine, direct comparison

Here’s a comparison of the fat and cholesterol in butter to one brand of margarine that John uses (he uses the “light” version, that has less saturated fat, no cholesterol, and below the 0.5g limit for trans fat).

First, butter.


Now for John’s margarine.

Note that while butter has 7g of saturated fat per tablespoon, the stick brand of John’s margarine has 3.5g of saturated fat, while the regular soft-tub has 2g, and the light version has 1.5g.  As for cholesterol, the butter has 31mg (10% of the recommended daily maximum), versus no cholesterol in the margarine.  And finally, for trans fat, the butter has 0.5g per tablespoon, whereas John’s margarine has below the 0.5g threshold, so it could be around the same amount.

But also keep in mind that all margarine is not the same.  John has chosen a healthier margarine, with lower saturated fats and very low trans fats.  Your mileage may vary, depending on which you choose.


Overall recommendations

Concerning dietary fat intake the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee recommends:

• Limit total fat intake to less than 25–35 percent of your total calories each day;
• Limit saturated fat intake to less than 7 percent of total daily calories;
• Limit trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of total daily calories;
• The remaining fat should come from sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as unsalted nuts and seeds, fish (especially oily fish, such as salmon, trout and herring, at least twice per week) and vegetable oils; and
• Limit cholesterol intake to less than 300 mg per day, for most people. If you have coronary heart disease or your LDL cholesterol level is 100 mg/dL or greater, limit your cholesterol intake to less than 200 milligrams a day.

Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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