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

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

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.

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.

margarine-vs-butter

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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  • Don’t EVER go to a doctor unless it’s life-threatening emergency!
    Doctors represent the pharmaceutical corporations, that’s all they do.

    For decades doctors have said no to butter; before that they were recommending cigarettes. In recent years US doctors prescribed over 200,000 people with VIOXX: it killed 60,000 of them and gave a further 120,000 heart attacks, strokes and other complications. This one incident killed more
    Americans than the Vietnam war! In the US each year medical doctors kill over 780,000 people.

    Now they like butter. They don’t know squat. Meanwhile Big Pharma makes $1 trillion a year off their prescriptions!

    And don’t believe the low-fat nonsense, or the cholesterol nonsense: your brain needs both of these in a abundance. Thanks to doctors we are getting stupider and stupider. Whole grain good for the heart? Nonsense. Modern wheat is a killer, in any form! Research, research, research. Check the Paleolithic Diet.

    …but don’t EVER visit a doctor!

  • nick

    You should try coconut ghee…50% grass fed ghee mixed with 50% organic virgin coconut oil. Soooooo good.

  • Oh yeah — I do that, too. Sliced tomatoes, sear them for just a few seconds on the griddle, then pop them atop the cheese.

    Heavenly.

  • Mmmm…. Grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. Especially with home-grown tomatoes.

  • We’ve been pickling all kinds of things here lately — home-grown dill cucumbers, zucchini, beans, green tomatoes, and of course, chopped Hatch chiles.

    I often saute a little non-pickled Hatch in the griddle, too, and add that to my grilled cheese sammich.

  • The cheese usually doesn’t take long to melt, so yes — and the butter and olive oil do a terrific job of making the bread golden & toasty, but not crunchy and dry.

    I got the recipe (and modified it a little) from a video I saw about a year ago, when I was trying to perfect the grilled cheese sandwich. I tried not-toasting the bread, and it ended up mooshy in the middle. Tried toasting in a toaster beforehand, and it usually burned in the pan while I tried to get the cheese melted. Then I saw the video (wish I could find it again, but I can’t), and realized I needed to think like a short-order cook (which I once did, many years ago).

    In a way, the recipe is more like “grilled, seasoned bread with melted cheese on top, assembled into sandwich form when done.”

  • I heard that!

  • True, as I recall we never made it to the cookie or pie crust stage in those days.

  • That using Cabot Cheddar —heaven. I usually prefer Okra pickles, but homey dills are good.

  • Monoceros Forth

    Pre-grilling the bread first? I like that idea. I’ll have to try it next time. Wish I had some olive oil, though. I’ve been cheaping out lately and getting canola or soybean oil for cooking even though neither really tastes like anything other than oil.

  • I have a special recipe that my wife demands about once a month. It starts with sourdough bread, buttered lightly on both sides (easiest if the butter has been softened well first). On a griddle heated to 350F, I drizzle some olive oil.

    Set the bread to grilling, seasoning both sides of each slice with salt and pepper. When one side is lightly golden brown put that side up and layer well on thinly sliced cheese. We prefer hard cheddar here, but anything decent will do. About the time the cheese is melting, the underside of the bread should also be nice and golden brown.

    Flip the pairs of bread slices together to make a sandwich and press down gently with the spatula to make the cheese all melt together. Slice in halves or quarters and serve with a nice home-canned dill pickle spear (we make our own).

  • Moderator3

    Soon, soon.

  • We resent the comparison to the NSA, Naja pallida. We are nowhere near that powerful. Darn it. ;)

  • This is my favorite avocado recipe: Buy a “not yet ripe” avocado and set it on your kitchen counter. Make a PBJ sandwich and watch some cartoons. Throw the over-ripe avocado in the compost heap. Drink some water.

    (You can substitute honey for the jelly, if you prefer.)

  • We will never tell. And you will never know. ;)

  • How about: “The best science shows that people who follow the vegan diet are mostly nuts”…?
    :-P

  • Pappa Bear makes me a flattened grill cheese sandwich with lots of butter about twice a year and I go NUTS!!!
    (You have to smush the bread and butter together to turn it into manna from heaven…)

  • SL Abrin

    Chemistry aside, if the list of ingredients are longer than a Haiku, I usually give it a pass.

  • nicho

    Our entire food supply has been pretty much poisoned by the corporations. Eating just about anything is bad for you.

  • nicho

    NSA — the only part of government that really listens to the people.

  • Aaaaaahhhhh! So you just saw me picking my nose, huh? Dammit.

  • NSA, is that you?

  • mereside

    Grass fed cows with no use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides. Al really natural(organic).
    The body recognizes butter make this way as something it can use for your health.

  • Whitewitch

    I agree wholeheartedly Bejammin…I have done the same thing – eliminating most refined foods my diet – especially Bread, sadly – no wheat at all for me. My combo is the same…I keep eggs and butter on the low down because I believe the brain needs fat to keep it healthy.

  • Whitewitch

    Well I know that now John…..hmmm crisco! I though that was just a marital aid.

  • Whitewitch

    Ohhh never in the fridge…ahhh that is a fate worse then death. I eat so many that I get them in a big bunch and pick the best one each day. I missed them so much on the east coast that now I eat them all the time.

    Nice Rhythm by the way.

  • ninjakiller

    Always have been healthy for you, loaded with super healthy fats.

  • Our eyes are always upon you. You have but to ask, and we are at your service. ;)

  • Monoceros Forth

    …if you take a recipe that was intended for crisco…

    Now why would I do something like that? :p

  • I like butter, but I believe what the doctors tell me, and think incremental steps towards avoiding death are worth pursuing. So I will eat butter, but I also do avoid it.

  • I’m pretty sure no one thinks shrimp are good for you – partly because of the cholesterol and partly because of all the nasty chemicals in seafood.

  • Well, you don’t bake with whipped margarine or butter! The sticks bake fine. As for cookies, if you take a recipe that was intended for crisco and replace it with butter, the cookies go flat, you have to adjust the recipe (that’s one reason cookies can go flat).

  • It does taste like crap and it is NOT good for you.

  • I personally don’t care about the health difference, I think margarine tastes like crap… and companies that make it are always playing with their formula, throwing in other random ingredients to try and mask the disgusting taste.

  • I simply don’t like the taste of margerine — it’s like flavored Crisco to me. So my preference is to use real butter, but to moderate how much of it I consume.

    Except when it’s grilled cheese sandwich night. Then I go nuts.

  • Monoceros Forth

    Hm…”It is OK if you don’t like them Monoceros Forth / The more to eat for me henceforth.” :p

    I’ll tell you another annoyance of avocados for me. I don’t eat them myself but my mate likes them from time to time so I’ll buy them…and it seems like you’ve got this very narrow window between “hard and nasty” and “overripe and nasty”. Get an underripe one and what do you do with it? Store it in the fridge and it will never get any riper. Store it on the kitchen counter and it will turn into mush within a few hours.

  • lol

  • Monoceros Forth

    Ah, practical experience :D You can get a sense of it even just from the list of ingredients cited above. The proportions of various substances in the list, with the exception of sodium (salt in other words) are pretty close to half of the proportions in the ordinary product that comes in butter-like sticks. That tells me it’s simple dilution that’s at work. It’s even easier with a product that comes in a tub because it’s easier to whip air into the mixture, whereas a product formed into sticks must necessarily be denser in order to hold together.

  • Monoceros Forth

    I don’t think “best science” and “vegan” quite belong in the same sentence really…

  • bejammin075

    Taubes is one of the best. His explanation of how insulin, fats, sugars and metabolism work is priceless. I try to read a lot and incorporate the best ideas from all camps (e.g. Whole-Food Vegan, Paleo, Atkins). Over the last several months, I’ve been eating primarily as a Whole-Food Almost-Vegan, and without any effort (e.g. excercise, or food restriction) I’ve gone from about 210 lbs to 187 lbs. At 6’1″ I’m almost lean again like I was in high school some decades ago. My waist has shrunk considerably. The main thing is to try to eliminate processed & refined foods, those are the real killer. My current diet does has some eggs, cream, butter, & cheese, but primarily I eat a wide variety of plants. People today who apply the best science to their diets have an unprecedented opportunity to not only protect themselves, but to thrive, while most people today continue to volunteer to be victims of the processed food industry.

  • Whitewitch

    “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter – Light” is a lot of water and the resulting cookies are very very sad indeed.

  • Whitewitch

    I love them in a car, I love then in a bar, I love them on some chips, I love them as a dip – it is okay if you do not like them Monoceros Forth…for there will be all the more for me. (could not make the last bit rhyme)

  • Monoceros Forth

    Nope, I’m a Californian born and raised, and I still think that eating an avocado is like eating grass-flavored butter. Urgh.

  • Monoceros Forth

    Eh? The most commonly occurring “trans-fat”, the glyceride of vaccenic acid, is naturally occurring in milkfat and was discovered in 1928, long before the era of factory-farming. Additionally, vaccenic acid glycerides are found in the fats of numerous wild animals. No animal fat is free from trans-fats, however it was raised.

  • Whitewitch

    Hey M Forth are you from the east coast…just curious, I find most people from the east coast feel that way – people were amazed in DC that I would eat the thing just as it comes from the tree. Here, in California – they are a gift from the Gods(esses)

  • Sphyg

    I prefer to use heavy whipping cream in place of butter whenever possible :)

  • Indigo

    I can’t believe it’s not butter! How dare they set out margarine at this otherwise lovely event?

  • ArthurH

    Hard to imagine that more than a half century ago to use of oleomargarine was controversial. Oleo first became widely available to the public during World War II when butter was in short supply due to wartime priorities. Dairy farmers so oleo as a threat to their livelihood and worked to kept it as unappetizing as possible. You couldn’t dye it yellow and market it in sticks until 10 years after the war. It had to be sold white in bags that contains a yellow dye packet that would color the oleo when you kneaded the unopened bag. David Brinkley noted in his biography that in 1957 when he hosted the radio program “Americans All,” no matter what the topic was “nuclear weapons, labor issues, etc.) the agriculture representative on the week’s panel would find away to inject the oleo controversy into the debate. Things are different today. Nearly 90% of the public prefers margarine, and because margarine comes in tubs, those butter compartments in the doors of refrigerators are now more often used to store unused batteries or for insulin bottles than for butter. As for myself, I find home baked goods taste much better when you use butter instead of oleo.

  • Moderator3

    Yes?

  • Monoceros Forth

    I figured that there’s no need to warn people against avocados because they’re so obviously not something you want to put in your mouth anyway. (Really I don’t like them…)

  • Monoceros Forth

    A few comments:

    First, partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fats does not necessarily result in cis-trans isomerization of double bonds. The most common method, hydrogenation with the use of solid metal catalysts, does produce such isomerization but to a degree varying with reaction conditions. There are methods of hydrogenating double bounds that will not lead to any isomerization, e.g. hydrogenation with diimide. Therefore, simply seeing the word “hydrogenated” on the label doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s loaded with trans-fat. Improvements in hydrogenation chemistry are being made all the time.

    Second, this sentence is, strictly speaking, mistaken: A general rule of thumb is that the “harder” the margarine is, the more heavily hydrogenated it is, thus having more trans-fat. If the fat were in fact completely hydrogenated it would contain no “trans-fat” at all because it would be fully saturated with no double bonds left.

    Third, in cookery, highly saturated fats such as butter and lard are used for more than just greasing up a frying pan or a baking dish. When they are used in baked goods–cookies, biscuits, pie crusts, and so forth–their solidity and high melting points are essential to producing the correct texture in the resulting product. Substitution is likely to lead to failure, especially if the substitute has been formulated to be “light” rather than good. After all, it’s easy to make a margarine look more healthful by diluting it with unmodified vegetable oil or even with water. That might be OK if all you want is some diacetyl-flavored grease to spread on your toast but for cooking and especially for baking it’s never going to work as well.

  • Whitewitch

    In fact, now avocados are great for you eh?

  • Whitewitch

    I love Gary Taubes – his book changed my life. I went from a very heavy, unhappy woman struggling to loose weight to one that is now only mildly overweight and very very happy with food again.

    My motto “Everything in Moderation”…..Up with BUTTER!!

  • James

    Why not go with a butter made from Grass Fed cows and not eat any trans fat?

    http://www.foodfacts.com/NutritionFacts/Milk-and-milk-products/Kerrygold-Pure-Irish-Butter–oz/29989

    After all there is no safe level of trans fat.

  • Drew2u

    Eh, to each their own. I’m surrounded by actual small, family farms so I can get locally sourced meats and animal products that don’t come from industrial factory farms.
    But if you’re avoiding non-animal-derived products on your aforementioned principal, then more power to you!

  • Drew2u

    Coconut oil is a staple in keto dieting, if that matters.

  • goulo

    Meanwhile, I’d rather consume a product that’s not animal-derived, especially given the generally horrid treatment of animals in the modern industrialized food chain.

  • bejammin075

    Mark, I’ve got some homework for you. In Gary Taubes excellent book “Good Calories Bad Calories” he states, like you, that saturated fat increases HDL (the good stuff). Now about LDL: Taubes states that more recent and more nuanced research shows that LDL can be sub-divided into many subcatagories, from large and fluffy LDL to much smaller LDL particles. The worst particles for our health are the very small LDL. According to Taubes, it turns out that saturated fat DECREASES the very worst LDL fraction, while increasing the amount of non-harmful LDL. If that is the case, then saturated fat increases HDL (good) and decreases the worst LDL (also good). Can you check into that?

    Also, for cooking, it’s very important to not expose yourself to unsaturated fats that can get ruined by the heat, creating a huge free radical burden. By this logic, when I make a scrambled egg, I would rather cook with a little dab of butter rather than margerine, because the butter will be more stable in the heat. And if the saturated fat really isn’t bad for you (see above) then the butter is a clear winner. Better yet, I’d use a little coconut oil, which is almost completely saturated, and thus the most heat stable.

    And don’t be too hasty in dismissing the coconut oil: its saturated fat is made of medium-length chains that are absorbed and processed significantly differently than the longer chains from animal saturated fat. More research needs to be done, but I think there’s a good chance that coconut oil in moderation can be a healthy addition to the diet. There are studies indicating that simply adding coconut oil (without restricting other calories) to a person’s already existing diet helps shrink abdominal fat, the worst body fat to have.

  • ninjakiller

    Moderation, always moderation.

  • Loona_c

    I agree with Drew2u. Animal-derived but “natural” products are better than the chemically manufactured “substitutes.” In the 60-70’s wasn’t there a push for everyone to eat margerine instead of butter because of heart health? How are the heart statistics? They certainly haven’t improved in time. Seems to me margerine wasn’t the be-all, end-all. Also when I was in school in the 70’s I was told (regarding fats and cholesteral) that shrimp and avocados were no-nos because of their fat content. Even then that didn’t make sense to me. And no one warns you about those 2 items any more. When in doubt I go with non-processed foods.

  • Drew2u

    For me, I’d rather consume a product that is animal-derived than something that’s been concocted in a laboratory. (and yes, in before animal supplements, hormone shots, antibiotics, and all that)

    “Partially Hydrogenated” is part of that list of stuff that I look for on labels and avoid like the plague, same with HFCS and trans fats.

    As for fats, I love Alton Brown’s descriptions from his “Fry Hard” episode.

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