The question of whether it is healthier to eat butter or margarine is a confusing one. It has eluded the nutrition experts for ages now. But, before we come to a conclusion, let’s define what these two products are and take a look at their nutrition profiles.
✱ What is Butter?
Butter is a dairy product made from the cream that rises to the top if milk is allowed to sit for a time. Most butter is all natural, and some has salt, flavorings and preservatives added. It is generally used as a spread and a condiment, as well as in cooking applications, such as baking, and pan frying.
Butter is more natural and tastier than margarine. It is a good source of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E and vitamin K. However, it contains cholesterol and high levels of saturated fat.
Saturated fats can raise your LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) as well as your HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol), but not enough to counterbalance the effect of LDL cholesterol. It is recommended to limit your intake of saturated fat to no more than 7 percent of total calories daily. This amounts to about 15 grams of saturated fat per day, based on a 2000 calories a day diet. Just one tablespoon of butter (around 14 grams) contain 7 grams of saturated fat.
Butter is also a significant source of dietary cholesterol. Excessive cholesterol is a health risk because fatty deposits gradually clog up the arteries, causing blood flow to the heart, brain and other parts of the body to become less efficient. Dietary cholesterol, found only in animal products, has less effect on blood cholesterol levels than the type of fat eaten and total fat intake.
However, some individuals are more responsive to dietary cholesterol than others. It is recommended to limit your intake of cholesterol to 200 mg per day. Butter has 30 mg of cholesterol in one tablespoon. Butter may also contain minute traces of the hormones and the antibiotics that are fed to the animals.
✱ What is Margarine?
Margarine is a man-made invention consisting mostly of hydrogenated vegetable oil. ‘Hardening’ vegetable oil by bubbling hydrogen through it at high temperature produces margarine.
Being from plant origin, it has no dietary cholesterol. It also contain higher amount of “good” unsaturated fats – polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats – as they are made from vegetable oils (such as canola, sunflower, safflower and olive oil) which contain high amounts of unsaturated fats. These unsaturated fats have been found to decrease “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and increase “good” HDL cholesterol levels in the blood, thus reducing the risk of contracting cardiovascular diseases.
The type of vegetable oil used in margarine can influence the amount of essential fatty acids, omega-6 and omega-3. Corn oil, sunflower oil and safflower oil contain large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and little omega-3 fatty acids, whereas flax oil, soybean oil and canola oil contains good amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Most people get plenty of omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3 fatty acids, and large amounts of omega-6 decreases the effect of omega-3.
Margarine contains trans fatty acids which are more dangerous than saturated fat. Trans fat are formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation. This makes the fat more solid and less likely to spoil. Trans fat can increase the risk of coronary heart disease by raising levels of LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and lowering levels of HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol).
Health authorities worldwide recommend that consumption of trans fat be reduced to trace amounts. The more solid a margarine is at room temperature, the more trans fat it contains. For example, just one tablespoon of stick margarine contain 3 grams of trans fat and 2 grams of saturated fat. Compare this with tub or liquid margarine, which contains around 1-2 gram of trans fat.
✱ Which one should I buy: butter or margarine?
The best way to control the rising cholesterol levels is by eating everything in moderation and not anything in excess. Today, margarine with almost zero trans fat are being made – the trans-free tub or liquid kinds. It is also fortified with Vitamin A and D. American Heart Association (AHA), National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NJLBI) and the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) recommend this type of fortified margarine over butter. Plant sterol esters or plant stanol esters have been added to some margarines and spreads because of their cholesterol lowering effect. Several studies have indicated that consumption of about 2 grams per day provides a reduction in LDL cholesterol of about 10 percent. However, if you like the taste of butter, you don’t have to give up butter completely. You can choose to have a “little” butter once in a while and consider using whipped or light butter.
When it comes right down to the choosing between margarine and butter it is really a personal preference. But at least with information we can make an informed decision.