Your Questions Answered: Butter vs. Margarine

Today, we’re introducing a new column called Your Questions Answered from A to Z.  And as the first installment we figured we’d tackle a question that has come up a lot lately. Allison*, a mom from NY writes, I’m reaching out because I remember asking you about butter vs margarine and I distinctly remember you saying that butter was better.  My husband has said over and over to me that his country crock is better actually because it doesn’t have any trans fat and is from vegetables vs. animals.  He looked online and found that the American Heart Assoc. said that country crock sans trans fat was better than butter.  So now I’m just confused…

Can you remind me why again butter is indeed better?

Great question Allison!

While margarine is lower in calories and saturated fat, it’s full of yucky ingredients (including GMOs, preservatives, and artificial flavors). Ingredients we try to avoid. After a fair amount of searching on Shedd’s Spread’s Country Crock’s website, we found this list: Vegetable Oil Blend (Liquid Soybean Oil, Palm Oil, Palm Kernel Oil, Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil), Water, Whey (Milk) Salt, Vegetable Mono and Diglycerides, Soy Lecithin, (Potassium Sorbate, Calcium Disodium EDTA) Used to Protect Quality, Citric Acid, Artificial Flavor, Vitamin A (Palmitate), and Beta Carotene (Color). Ick! Regular butter, on the other hand, is made from one ingredient, cow’s milk or cream.

As for the “trans fat free” claim, it’s important to read the fine print. Zero grams trans fat per serving does not mean zero trans fat. That’s because if a product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, the manufacturer is allowed to claim that that product is trans fat-free. You see this a lot with processed snack foods. Hydrogenated oil of any kind = trans fat. And while excess saturated fat isn’t good, trans fat is worse. Both saturated and trans fat are thought to raise cholesterol levels, but only trans fat increases inflammation and lowers good cholesterol (the kind the protects us from heart disease).

That being said, fat in general (the naturally occurring kind as opposed to the chemically created version, i.e., trans fat) has gotten a bad rap over the past couple decades. We all need it (children in particular, because of their developing brains and bodies). Not only does it aid in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), but it helps us feel full, so we eat less. Also, there’s been a lot of discussion lately about whether saturated fat in itself is associated with heart disease and other adverse health conditions, or if something else is at play. A recent meta-analysis (a large scale study of similar pooled studies) looking at food sources of saturated fat and chronic disease suggests the latter.

The American Heart Association recommends soft (trans fat free) margarine over butter because of butter’s high saturated fat content, but we think such recommendations may change as more research comes out suggesting that foods high in saturated fat are not necessarily atherogenic (meaning a food that causes the arteries to be blocked) after all.

Looking strictly at numbers, Country Crock Original has about 70 calories and 7 grams of fat (2g of them saturated), whereas real butter has about 100 calories and 11 grams of fat, 7g saturated. Not a huge difference if you stick to the recommended serving size. For that reason, we recommend cooking with real butter but using less of it (1 Tbsp = approx. 3 pats). Or better yet, try organic whipped butter, which like stick butter contains only one ingredient (cream), but has fewer calories than both hard butter and margarine (50 calories/servings) and half the saturated fat (3.5 grams) of butter. If, however, you have a dairy allergy, follow a vegan diet, or are are trying to avoid animal products altogether, good alternatives include extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, grapeseed oil, or safflower oil.

We favor a whole foods diet and simply put, margarine is not a whole food. Like with many other products lining the supermarket shelves, if it doesn’t pass the “I can make it at home” or “source it from the local farm” test, skip it!

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*Names have been changed to protect the identity of our subscribers.