Margarine vs. Butter: What’s the Difference?

‌Margarine and butter are both yellow, available as sticks or spreads, and used for cooking and baking. But when you start to break it down, margarine and butter are made of different ingredients, provide different health benefits, and are even used differently in the kitchen.

Butter is made from heavy cream. It contains higher levels of saturated fat, which can lead to several risks. 

Margarine is made from vegetable oils. It contains unsaturated fats that serve as “good” fats in the body. Margarine comes in many forms, and each one has its downsides.

The Truth Is In The Fat

‌The main topic that gets tossed around in the conversation about butter and margarine is “fat.” Foods can have good and bad fats. Knowing how these fats affect you can help you make an informed choice between butter and margarine.

Margarine’s “good” fats. Margarine’s vegetable oils contain unsaturated fats, which are divided into polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. When used as a replacement for saturated fat, they help lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, a form of “bad” cholesterol that clogs arteries.

Unsaturated fats are commonly found in plants and vegetables. These are considered “good” because they play several beneficial roles. They can: ‌

  • Improve your blood cholesterol levels.
  • Ease inflammation
  • Help your heart’s rhythm on consistent intake
  • Lower your chances of heart disease

Butter’s “bad” fats. Butter is made from churned milk or cream, and the animal fats in it have higher levels of saturated and trans fats. These fats can lead to higher cholesterol, greater chance of heart disease, and lower levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol — the "good" cholesterol that unclogs arteries. 

Saturated fats pop up in many foods, but most people get them from meat and dairy. While they impact “bad” cholesterol, about 5% of your calories each day should come from saturated fats.

Trans fats get even more complicated. Natural trans fats are found in meat and dairy, whereas artificial trans fats are used in fried foods. Both types can lead to heart disease and stroke when unrestricted in your diet. 

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Sticks and Spreads

‌Margarine isn’t always a healthier alternative. It is often supplemented with additional fats for consumer purposes. 

Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. This is clear when looking at olive or canola oils. This type of consistency isn’t great for baking a cake. 

Trans fats cause oils to solidify. This gives sticks of butter their shape and spreads their creamy consistency. 

Sticks of butter and margarine contain more saturated and trans fats. The stick shape is created by saturated and trans fats, which causes the health statistics to shift.‌

  • A serving of stick margarine contains around 2 grams of saturated fat and 3 grams of trans fat., while a serving of margarine from a tub contains 3 grams of saturated fat and no trans fat.
  • A serving of stick butter contains around 7 grams of saturated fat but no trans fat, while a serving of butter from a tub contains around 4 grams of saturated fat but no trans fat.

‌You can choose from a variety of light margarine, whipped butter, and low-fat sticks or spreads to help you manage your fat. 

(Some) Margarine Is Vegan

‌If you have dietary restrictions and need to avoid animal products, margarine can be a good alternative. However, always read the list of ingredients. Not every brand may be vegan.

Alternatives to Butter and Margarine

‌One area where most people refuse to switch butter for anything else is baking. Butter provides baked goods with rich color and a soft, moist texture. Margarine (unless it contains added dairy or fat to make it more like butter) doesn’t provide the same tasty benefits.

However, with a bit of creativity in the kitchen, you can find a variety of substitutes for butter and margarine. ‌

  • Applesauce can substitute for many wet ingredients like butter or oil in baking.
  • Various plant oils can be used for cooking, such as avocado, canola, and vegetable oil.
  • Greek yogurt, which can vary in fats and other nutrients, can be substituted for butter while baking. 
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

‌American Heart Association: “Saturated Fat,” “Trans Fats.” 

HARVARD T.H. CHAN School of Public Health: “Types of Fat.” 

LiveWell with UnityPoint Health: “When It Comes To Your Heart, Is It Margarine or Butter?” 

MAYO CLINIC: “Which spread is better for my heart — butter or margarine?” 

Piedmont HEALTHCARE: “Margarine versus butter: Which is healthier?” Vegan Friendly: “Is Margarine Vegan?” 

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