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Margarine vs Butter: What is the difference and which is better?

With a myriad of brands and types available, how can you know which dairy-ish spread to put on your toast or use in baking for the good of your health and taste buds? We’ve attempted to shed some factual light on the ‘margarine vs butter’ debate to help you make an informed decision that suits your dietary needs and culinary preferences.

What is butter?

Butter is made from the fat and protein components of milk or cream, and has been around for, well, pretty much as long as civilisation has existed (the Butter Journal – yep, there is such a thing – has an interesting rundown on butter’s long history). It’s mainly made of milk fat, water and milk solids. Butter has been a staple in diets thanks to its flavour and versatility in cooking and baking. According to Dairy Australia, butter contains about 80% milk fat, which gives it its creamy texture and rich taste, but that means that it contains about 67% saturated fat, 29% monounsaturated fat and 4% polyunsaturated fat.

What’s the difference between those types of fat? Each fat type affects the body differently, with unsaturated fats – that’s monounsaturated or polyunsaturated – considered better for heart health. Saturated fats mostly come from animal products and some tropical oils. Monounsaturated fats are in olive oil, avocados and some nuts. Polyunsaturated fats come from foods such as fish, flaxseed, and walnuts and include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Dieticians Australia says that omega-3 fats help protect against heart disease, strokes and other inflammation-related illnesses, while omega-6 fats lower the risk of heart disease if you eat them instead of saturated and trans fats.

Trans fats, which are a type of unsaturated fat that you can get from both animal and artificial sources, come up a lot when reading about the difference between margarine and butter. Butter has a reasonably small amount of naturally occurring trans fat in it, as do some margarines, but overall, the general guidance is that a low-trans fat margarine will likely have less trans fat than butter, as Healthdirect, the Australian Government health information site, explains.

That said, Dairy Australia says that butter also contains a fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), that some studies have suggested might be protective against cancer, and vitamins A, D and E that are linked with better eye, bone and skin health. It’s important to do your own research into the health impacts of both fats and vitamins, because this article is a basic guide that doesn’t delve deeply into the plentiful science on these topics.

What is margarine?

Margarine was invented as a cheaper alternative to butter. A French chemist called Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès came up with it in 1869 after Emperor Napoleon III decided he needed a butter substitute for his armies and poor citizens. Margarine is typically made from vegetable oils, water, emulsifiers and sometimes milk. Modern margarines usually aim to be a healthier alternative to butter, with many brands focused on reducing trans fat content and enriching their products with plant sterols to help lower cholesterol levels. The Heart Foundation suggests picking a margarine that’s low in saturated and trans fats.

What’s cholesterol? It’s a fat-like substance that’s produced by your body and is also in food and is needed for good health, but can be damaging to your arteries and so heighten the risk of heart disease if you have too much. Healthdirect has a good explanation of the benefits and risks of cholesterol.

We mentioned plant sterols too, so you might be wondering what they are. The Australian Atherosclerosis Society explains that plant sterols, which are found in some plants in small amounts, are similar in structure to cholesterol so compete for absorption in the small intestine. The plant sterols win and so stop cholesterol from being absorbed. The Heart Foundation says that plant sterols have been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels by about 10%. That’s considered a good thing because higher blood cholesterol levels are linked with a higher risk of heart disease. The problem is that it’s hard to consume the amount of plant sterols that are useful for reducing cholesterol absorption just by eating plants, so eating foods that have plant sterols added is usually advised if you want their health benefits.

The differences between butter and margarine

Fat content and health impacts

The main difference between butter and margarine is the fats with which they’re made up. Butter is commonly higher in saturated fats, which can raise levels of cholesterol in the blood, increasing the risk of heart disease. Margarine’s fat content comes mainly from vegetable oils, which contain unsaturated fats that can lower blood cholesterol levels if they’re used as a replacement for saturated fats. As we noted previously, though, it depends on the type of margarine you purchase, with the recommendation typically being to choose a margarine that’s as low as possible in trans fat and saturated fat generally.

Taste and use in cooking

Taste is the other big factor in the ‘butter versus margarine’ debate. Many people prefer the rich taste of butter, especially when it’s used in cooking. On the flip side, margarine doesn’t usually have that rich flavour, although there are margarine brands that try hard to emulate the butter taste. Margarine, on the other hand, has plenty of uses; you can use some margarines instead of butter in some recipes but the result, including the taste, might not be exactly the same so experimentation is advised.

Nutritional additions

Some margarines are fortified with vitamins such as Vitamin D and omega-3. Whether these ‘fortifications’ are essential for good health would depend on your personal circumstances, so if you’re concerned you may have a shortfall in nutrients in your diet, it’s best to consult an expert such as a dietician, nutritionist or your doctor.

Butter vs margarine: Which spread is better?

When choosing between margarine and butter, consider your dietary needs, health goals and taste preferences and make sure you talk to professionals in the diet and health spheres about your personal circumstances. It’s also important to look at the product labels, focusing on the types and amounts of fats. Not all butters or margarines are the same!

That’s a long way of saying that the ‘margarine v butter’ debate doesn’t have an easy, one-size-fits-all answer. Both have their place in the Australian kitchen, depending on the many factors we’ve covered in this article. If you have a particular health condition that’s impacted by diet, follow the advice of your specialist health advisors.

And remember that the expert guidance tends to be the proverbial ‘moderation in all things’; as Dieticians Australia advises, it’s wise to moderate even the amount of healthy fats you consume (you can find them in avocados, nuts and seeds) and swap unhealthy fats for healthy facts when you can when cooking.

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Christine Seib
Christine's three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and editor, including at The Times, CNBC and The Australian, has prepared her to deliver the best digital tools and information to Australians who want to purchase products and services more easily and with greater confidence.

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