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What’s Better For You: Butter or Margarine?

 

Butter or margarine: which one is better? If you don't have time to read the whole post I will summarize it for you in one sentence. Butter. But I do hope you read on to find out why!

I grew up in a butter family. My mom hated margarine from the start and my grandma Fritzi insists on using it in everything. Margarine just has this weird faux-sweet taste to it that always made me cringe the same way chewing on a balloon does.

Margarine is simply not food. And despite the dogma swirling around about fats, butter is not bad for us, and in fact, has many healing and healthy properties to it.

What is Margarine?

Margarine was originally invented in France as a less expensive alternative to butter, so the flavour would be accessible to the masses. It’s interesting that the French, who are known to be food purists, would alter a whole food in such a way!

Almost all margarine begins as refined vegetable oil, which is chemically extracted at high temperature, causing the oil to oxidize and become rancid. This high heat also destroys the vitamin E in the oil, an important nutrient for hormonal balance and it’s needed to preserve the naturally occurring essential fatty acids.

To make margarine, the oil must be hardened.  This is done by hydrogenation or bubbling hydrogen through the vegetable oil at high temperature - a process that transforms it to a solid at room temperature and making it more shelf-stable. When the carbon bonds of the oils are saturated with hydrogen, the product becomes a hydrogenated oil.

We've all seen the declaration on margarine tubs that it contains 'polyunsaturated oil'. However, the processing or hydrogenation removes the flexibility of these oils and creates trans fatty acids, no matter what the label says. These man-made fatty acids that can worsen a number of conditions.

Health Risks of Trans Fats

Research indicates that trans fats are linked to:

  • Obesity
  • Allergies
  • Diabetes
  • An increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • An increased risk of colon cancer and possibly breast cancer
  • An adverse effect on the brain and nervous system, disrupting cell membranes and changing the way neurons communicate

The final margarine product may also contain nickel, cadmium, lead and other very toxic heavy metals.

Laws have changed in North America over the last decade or so to make it mandatory for companies to label trans fats on products and reduce their trans fat content. The United States concluded that trans fats are not safe at all and banned them, something that hasn't happened in Canada yet.

Since the early 2000s, the amount of trans fats in margarine or butter-like spreads has improved as companies lowered them, but it’s still not enough for me to recommend we eat these non-foods.

Effects of Margarine on Health

What is Butter?

Butter is made by churning the cream that rises to the top of the milk. The churning of this cream catalyzes a chemical reaction that causes the cream to harden slightly, giving it the buttery consistency. Butter is a good fat that contains a number of natural fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D, E and K.  These are not found to any degree in margarine (unless synthetic versions are added). Unlike margarine, butter does not contain trans-fatty acids or toxic heavy metals.

Butter and Cholesterol

Butter's effect on cholesterol was a smart little maneuver of propaganda by the anti-fat contingency. Only about 15% of our cholesterol level is affected directly by diet. Most cholesterol is manufactured within the body as it is the raw material for the adrenal stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) and the sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen and progesterone). The body often reacts to stress by producing more cholesterol in order to make more stress-fighting hormones. The observations of many natural health practitioners indicate that a balanced body chemistry is the key to normalizing cholesterol.

Butter and Saturated Fat

Emerging research allays long-held fears about saturated fat and our health. One review found that saturated fats had very little effect on stroke risk. High-fat diets have also been used therapeutically in a number of contexts, such as the ketogenic diet, to encourage many beneficial health effects.

Another meta-analysis of cohort studies and clinical trials concluded that butter consumption had little to no association with all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease or diabetes, and the researchers felt their findings “do not support a need for major emphasis in dietary guidelines on either increasing or decreasing butter consumption.”

They also commented:

“Current dietary recommendations on butter and dairy fat are largely based upon predicted effects of specific individual nutrients (e.g., total saturated fat, calcium), rather than actual observed health effects. Our findings add to a growing body of evidence on long-term health effects of specific foods and types of fats. Conventional guidelines on dietary fats have not accounted for their diverse food sources nor the specific individual fatty acid profiles in such foods. Different foods represent complex matrices of nutrients, processing, and food structure, which together influence net health effects.”

In a nutshell, what they are saying is that food is much more than the sum of its parts. We can pick apart certain foods, but that doesn’t always tell us the whole story.

Nutrients Found in Butter

  • Vitamin A, which is essential for a healthy immune system, growth and vision, and supports mucous membranes
  • Vitamin D, which is crucial for bone health, immunity and hormone production.
  • Antioxidants Vitamin E and selenium
  • Calcium
  • Butyric acid, a short-chain fat that reduces inflammation in the digestive tract, and can help with inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease, as well as irritable bowel syndrome and constipation.
  • Dr. Weston Price identified a factor in butter that is essential for proper growth and development of the bone structure. He called it 'activator X' or ‘factor X’ - and what he was identifying is now thought to be Vitamin K2, which we know is crucial to bone health. Dr. Price was able to reverse severe tooth decay in children by feeding them one meal containing quality butter.

The Best Type of Butter to Consume

As with many other foods, quality matters. When consuming animal products, I recommend choosing organic which is better for our health, the health of animals and the health of the environment. Organic, grass-fed butter offers us more nutrients than conventional butter.

For example:

What About Butter in Coffee?

You’ve probably heard of the butter coffee trend or ‘bulletproof coffee’. I break down the health benefits of this one here.

A Dairy-Free Butter Alternative with Health Benefits

ghee Clarified Butter

You may have noticed that I typically don’t advocate for dairy products on this site, in my recipes or during the culinary nutrition expert program. That’s because dairy, particularly conventional dairy, is associated with a number of negative health effects including poor digestion and absorption, inflammation and a decrease in bone health.

However, I am a huge advocate for organic ghee, which is made from butter that has all of the milk solids and proteins removed. This makes it a good dairy-free alternative that offers a number of health benefits, such as

Learn how to make ghee at home – it’s super easy.

butterImage: iStock/funkybg

32 Responses to “What’s Better For You: Butter or Margarine?”

  1. ToKissTheCook said…
    I'm with you through this entire debate. A little bit of butter and a little bit of olive oil make everything better and make dishes that aren't all that indulgent taste that way. Also- looking forward to the cholestrol post. My boyfriend's is high and I chide him about diet but maybe he's right... genetics? We actually caught a snippet of the debate on filmhttp://vimeo.com/3316573
  2. Nicole said…
    Thanks for the super informative post. Growing with a Weight Watchers mom we were always using low cal margerine. Having gone vegan I switched to Earth Balance but after reading their ingredients I am guessing it is just as toxic as the regular stuff. Do you have any suggestions of what I can use? I very rarely use the Earth Balance I have but do enjoy it as a treat every once and while on toast or mashed sweet potatoes. Thanks so much!
  3. Butter isn't an option in our household, but I also try to avoid margarine. When a little is absolutely needed, I use Earth Balance; but really, for all of my baking and cooking I use various oils.
  4. Sharon L said…
    Margarine is gross...it does taste like plastic if I can recall. I probably haven't had any in about 6 years! I know people who think that margarine is "healthier" because of the lower calories/fat info on the label, but it doesn't mean that it is good for you. There are added chemicals and what not added to make it 99% less fat or whatever! I'd rather have butter which is less processed, made of real milk-making it actually part of a food group! But too bad, I can't have any dairy products anymore...if I could, butter over margarine for sure. I don't even have to think about it.
  5. Jodi said…
    We usually use Earth Balance - if we can't find it we use butter. Any opinion on whether Earth Balance is better then butter?
  6. A~ said…
    We use butter. We have a butter dish on the counter 24/7. When my husband and I were 1st together we used country crock. It was cheap, spreadable but the taste was off. I grew up on a dairy farm and we made our own butter from raw milk and I still miss that. I now try to buy local made butter here in New England. After reading your post I think I'll stop buying Margarine for cooking altogether. I had no idea about the whole hydrogenation process and the metals that are found in margarine and I'm guessing shortening. Thanks! A~
  7. Chantal said…
    All margarines aren't created equal! A bunch of people have mentioned the Earth Balance margarine brand, if you buy the organic kind, it's probably much better for you than eating conventional butter. It's also considerably lower in sat. fats while using a healthy expeller-pressed blend of natural oils...
  8. Cindy said…
    I love butter... i don't over do it cuz hubs has cholesterol issues...he really watches his Sats... but a pat of butter and olive oil just makes everything sautee and taste so RICH. a little goes a long way and, even though we buy it...hack hack...I DETEST margarine. ( some traditions are hard to break in my home) :) Thanks Meghan for the comparison!
  9. Leesie said…
    Butter me please! I enjoyed Grandma Fritzi and the refrigerator room - gee whiz - I've missed a lot since only joining you recently on your blog but I'm here to stay and follow..I have lots to learn ;o)
  10. claire said…
    cool

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