Butter or margarine?

Butter or margarine? One of the many choices when it comes to food that seems to offer no easy answer.



The camps

If you’re from the butter camp, chances are you’re aware that margarine “is naturally grey” and is only yellow because of the “artificial colours” that are added. You might see margarine as a concoction of chemicals, full of trans fats (even worse than saturated ‘animal’ fats), and not “real food” that we are made to eat.

If you’re in the margarine camp, chances are that you know most of the fat in butter is saturated ‘animal’ fat, which is the type that raises cholesterol in your body. When visiting a friend who uses butter, you might be wracked with pangs of guilt, with images of clogged arteries speeding through your mind.

Or you might be sitting on the fence, waiting for a post like this to come along!


The facts

When it comes to heart health, there’s no two ways about it: margarine is a better choice than butter. Butter is roughly 80% fat, 20% water. Saturated ‘animal’ fat makes up more than half (55%) the weight of butter, which, as we mentioned in the last post, is the major dietary factor in increasing cholesterol levels. On the other hand, being made from plant oils, margarine contains mostly unsaturated ‘healthier’ fats.

The National Heart Foundation of Australia and American Heart Association each recommend reducing saturated fat to 7%, or less, of the energy we eat, to maintain healthy arteries. To put this into perspective, saturated fat made up 12% of the energy Australians ate in 2011-12, and 11% of the energy Americans ate in 2009-10. So it is very important that we do all we can to eat far less animal fats, and replace them with plant oils.

In short: Switching from butter to margarine is a simple strategy to significantly reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet.



What is margarine? What about trans fats?

In simple terms, margarine is solidified plant oils, with flavour and colour added. Originally, this process involved a process called partial hydrogenation. One of the issues of partial hydrogenation is that it produces trans fats. Trans fats have received a lot of media coverage for being even worse for you than saturated fats, and this is one reason that some people believe that butter is a better choice.

In Australia, a different process is now used to produce margarine, called interesterification. This process produces negligible trans fats. If you’re unsure, check the Nutrition Information Panel of a margarine product next time you’re in a supermarket. Chances are it will have an (optional) section for trans fats in the Nutrition Information Panel, showing that the levels are nil or next to nil. Labelling of trans fats content is mandatory in the United States, but not in Australia or the EU.

Thankfully for those of us in Australia and New Zealand, Britain and the United States, the amount of trans fats we eat is under the safe limit of 1% of dietary energy set by the World Health Organisation. In all of these countries, our intake of saturated fats is of far greater concern (is much too high). Interestingly, the World Health Organisation note that, due to cheap hydrogenated oils, it is people living in developing countries who are more likely to have an intake of trans fats that exceeds the 1% limit.


Alternatives to both

If you can’t quite come at the idea of margarine being ‘unnatural’, but are keen to maintain healthy arteries, there is a third option. Use butter, but use it sparingly and occasionally. If you enjoy having a sandwich with butter on it everyday and can’t come at any of the tips below, I would seriously consider switching to margarine.

Ideas for a butter and margarine-free sandwich:

  • Have a salad sandwich with avocado or a drizzle of olive oil instead of butter. Add reduced fat cheese for extra flavour, protein & calcium
  • Avocado. Full of healthy ‘unsaturated’ plant oils and vitamins.
  • Peanut butter. It’s a great source of healthy plant oils and protein
  • Tahini (sesame seed spread), available in health food shops, Middle Eastern grocers, and supermarkets. It has a nutty flavour and is high in plant oils. Goes well with tomato for some sweetness.
  • A small drizzle of olive oil on bread makes the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of homemade soup
  • Try going butter/margarine free. It’s amazing how many people try sandwiches without a butter-like spread, and find they can’t taste the difference. You might be one of them!

Or try branching out and have left-overs, tuna and crackers or pasta salads for lunch instead. Chances are you’ll naturally end up enjoying better nutrition and more varied, tastier food at the same time!


Tahini made from black sesame seeds

Tahini made from black sesame seeds



Margarine is a much better choice for your arteries than butter, although there’s nothing wrong with having butter occasionally. If you can’t come at switching over to margarine entirely, branch out and try other lunch options. Chances are you’ll have a tastier range of choices for lunch too!


Further reading: The National Heart Foundation of Australia has some FAQ’s on this topic.


4 thoughts on “Butter or margarine?

  1. Pingback: Exploring Fats. Part 1: Saturated, Unsaturated and Trans Fats. | Nourish Me Simply

    • Thanks, Pearlz. I read the other day that Rosemary Stanton (well-respected Australian nutritionist/dietitian) said that she tries to avoid “yellow spreads” as much as possible. Rather than having margarine, she has butter in small quantities.
      I liked the idea of describing them as “yellow spreads” and trying to eat other nourishing foods instead!

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