Found in the refrigerated section, butter and margarine show its face value in a relative form - in a plastic container and ready to incorporate into products following its purchase. And if you have grown up with one over the other, grabbing the comfortable product is an autopilot response. But with research and opinions evolving around each of their uses, what exactly is the difference between butter and margarine and which should you choose?
Butter vs. Margarine
Simply put, butter is created from the fatty portion found in cow's milk, churning until it transforms into recognizable butter. If desired, find more on the different types of butter and processing techniques here. When it comes to margarine, the preparation is vastly different. Margarine is created by recreating liquid oils into a solid by adding hydrogen, mostly in a stabilization process known as hydrogenation. The hydrogenation of vegetable oil was encouraged after manufacturers realized hydrogenated oil was more stable and could withhold its structure and flavor for longer periods of time. But the process created a much greater issue than imagined... Surfacing the notorious trans fat.
But the initial debate raised when health experts suggested the saturated fat content of butter was to blame for heart disease, mostly related to its potential role of elevating cholesterol levels. Though the nutritional claims of saturated fat have formulated dietary guidelines and recommendations, research studies have suggested saturated fat is not the primary culprit of heart disease, but rather trans fat should get the pointed finger. And since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has marked 2018 the year of trans fat removal within the food supply, it is undebatable that margarine rich in trans fat should be limited or avoided until then.
The American Heart Association (AHA) strongly advises and encourages Americans should limit saturated fat intake to less than seven percent of total daily calories. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, less than 140 calories or 16 grams should come from saturated fat sources including butter. Additionally, the AHA suggests limiting trans fat to less than one percent of total daily calories, translating to less than 20 calories or two grams. The AHA also recommends the majority of dietary fats should come from monounsaturated (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), including nuts and seeds, fish, avocadoes, and olive and canola oils.
Which Should You Choose?
As identified above, the differences between butter and margarine are quite apparent. Margarine requires more extensive steps for a final end product, with butter ready within a much narrower process. Mostly and commonly, health and nutrition experts recommended less processed or manipulated products, ultimately encouraging whole foods. So when it really comes down to the nutritional comparisons and processing techniques, butter moves to the top over trans fat-containing margarine products, though MUFAs and PUFAs take the highest precedency.
As a final note, it is important to realize not all butters are absent of additional ingredients while not all margarines contain trans fats. Some butters contain added salt while some margarines are created with healthful plant sterols and stanols. But since both are considered a fat source, being rich and dense in calories, remain mindful of servings and portion sizes. If managing high blood lipid levels, including triglycerides and cholesterol, a dietitian can further help determine which spreadable option works best in your personal, individualized diet!