Butter or margarine, which is healthiest?


Emma Thornton
Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


01 July 2019

Butter or margarine, which is healthier?

Whilst there is some controversy around whether butter or margarine is the better option, there are a number of factors to consider:

  • Butter has a higher proportion of saturated fats
  • Margarine is more processed
  • Margarine is often made from refined vegetable oils

In summary, butter may be a slightly better option but here I discuss these themes in more detail and outline my advice for on to include butter or margarine in a healthy eating regime.

What's the difference?

  Butter Margarine
What is it made from? Made from churning milk or cream, sometime a small amount of salt is added.  Made from refined vegetable oils. Other ingredients are often added including water, preservatives and additives.
What colour is it?  A pale yellow colour, the yellow pigment comes from beta carotene from a cow's diet, indicating a good consumption of grass. Paler colours may indicate the cows led a more grain-based diet.  Would be naturally clear in colour but colourings tend to be added to make it appear more comparable to butter.
What's the texture like?  A soft, solid texture at room temperature.  Resembles butter at room temperature although not as smooth in consistency.
What is the approximate fatty acid profile?1 Saturated fats: 66%
MUFAs*: 30%
PUFAs**: 4%
Saturated fats: 20%
MUFAs*: 47%
PUFAs**: 33%

*MUFAs = Mono-unsaturated fatty acids

**PUFAs = Poly-unsaturated fatty acids

What does this mean for our health?

Saturated fats were originally given a bad name and back in the 1970s the advice was to reduce our consumption of animal products containing this type of fat. In response, the food industry lined our shelves with margarine and vegetable oil-based spreads and this was seen as a suitable alternative.

After some time, more revelations came to light. During the processing of these margarines, some of the unsaturated fatty acid content was being artificially converted into a category of fats known as trans-fats. Unfortunately, this category of fats was considered the unhealthiest fat of all; and as a result of the unnatural processing involved, this came as no surprise.

Nowadays, the content of trans-fats has been swapped for only partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, but it's still a more processed component of these spreads.
So, as a result of this controversy, once more, our attention has turned back to butter to some extent; is it really as bad as was once made out? It's definitely the more natural option, right?
More up to date research has aimed to investigate this as when it comes to the original evidence that came to light all those years ago, it well may have been slightly flawed.

1. There are different types of saturated fats

 

Some recent research has helped remind us that there are different types of saturated fats; so rather than lumping them all together, it's important to consider differentiating between the different types.
The finding of this trial suggest that saturated fats from meat, including red or processed meat, may pose more adverse health concerns when compared to sources of saturated fats contained in milk or dairy.2 Again, this isn't to say that we should steer clear of meat completely, but consider how we consume certain foods and meat should perhaps be used more sparingly, rather than at the forefront of our diets.

2. Much of the argument against saturated fat concerns cholesterol...

When it comes to saturated fats, such as those found in dairy, much of the initial concern was the potential effects on cholesterol levels. However, when evaluating the evidence, the results have been very mixed, and/or there have been some fatal flaws in some of the main pieces of research making the headlines! For example, this appeared to be the case recently when it came to eggs getting all the stick.3 But, for us, much of this comes as no surprise.
Firstly, contrary to popular belief we need cholesterol for a number of important bodily functions. Next, cholesterol levels aren't the be all and end all when it comes to cardiovascular risk; underlying inflammation is also an important consideration...
However, back to cholesterol for now. Rather than being overly focussed on dietary cholesterol, the focus should be also be on supporting digestive and liver health which we know helps balance the amount of cholesterol in our system.

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This idea has been back by research4 that suggests that more general dietary patterns (i.e. choosing less processed items), moving more and genetics may have a multi-factorial effect when it comes to cholesterol levels and indeed heart health, rather than one specific food.5

3. Taking saturated fats out means putting something else in – this is important!

The problem with any dietary extremes is, when we remove any element and replace it with another, this can throw us off balance, plus we need to carefully consider what we're putting in instead.
One relevant example of this is opting for a more extreme, low fat diet. Naturally, this often means we are much more likely to consume a higher proportion of carbohydrates, and this certainly didn't sit well for our health.6 Interestingly, this may also help explain why dairy has recently actually even been considered protective when it comes to the risk of type II diabetes – more fats may help protect against the detrimental effects of an increase in carbohydrates.7

How to pick going forward

So, whilst the debate around saturated fats isn't completely resolved, some advice from me when it comes to picking your daily spread is as follows:

1. Be cautious of highly processed goods


Whilst we still haven't resolved the butter vs. margarine debate completely, if we've learned anything it should be to be cautious of highly processed options. Next time you reach for marg, check out the ingredients list; are the 'light' 'spreadable' or 'cholesterol-lowering' options really healthier or has some unnatural process been used to make them this way?
Whilst luckily most sources of trans fats have been eradicated from margarines by now (it isn't surprising that this highly processed ingredient didn't sit well with us) the effects of some of the other processes or ingredients may still be relatively unknown.
Also, when it comes to butter, grass-fed is the way to go. This is how cows were originally reared and the nutrient count is reflected in the natural colour. Grain-fed animals don't confer the same nutrients, as again, this isn't as nature intended.

2. Don't forget about other fat options

Personally, when it comes to margarine over butter I'd opt for butter as it's the less processed, most naturally nutritious option, but again, it should be still used in moderation, and there are plenty of other healthy fats or oils we can switch our attention to!
As we most definitely need a good dose of healthy fats in our diet it's important to actively acquire them from elsewhere too; from other unrefined oils including olive or coconut oil which can used in cooking, to stocking up on wholefoods including nuts, seeds and avocados which are perfect examples of completely unprocessed, plant-based sources of fats that we know are protective.
As well as the wider variety of nutrients you'll acquire by mixing up your sources of fats, you'll also be exposed to a wider spectrum of those all important fatty acids. The beauty of butter from grass fed cows is we can still acquire a small amount of omega-3 from this fat source, whereas margarine is instead very heavy on the more pro-inflammatory omega-6. Getting a favourable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is also important to maintain good health so including oily fish, walnuts and flaxseeds (and their oils) can also help to protect this balance.

3. Variety is key

Whilst it's very easy to become too caught up in the pros versus the cons of specific food items, it seems that including a good variety of foods, in as natural a form as possible, appears to be the most protective factor when it comes to good health.8
So, my advice is don't shy away from the odd knob of butter or a good glug of olive oil, but fresh, whole foods need to be prominent too!

 

1. https://scialert.net/fulltextmobile/?doi=pjn.2009.151.157
2. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190128105230.htm
3. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2728487
4. https://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.e8539
5. https://www.nature.com/articles/ejcn2017153
6. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/314339.php
7. https://www.dairynutrition.ca/scientific-evidence/roles-on-certain-health-conditions/milk-products-and-type-2-diabetes
8. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190529221040.htm

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