Spread ‘Em! Butter vs. Margarine
I still remember my mother using butter for many of her cooking needs when I was younger. Eventually, she made the switch to margarine, thinking it was a healthier alternative. But now, more and more people are challenging the belief that margarine should be used as a replacement for butter. I recently took a class where a Stanford University nutrition professor explained that butter is a completely acceptable ingredient in our families’ meals. Here, we’ll take a look at the debate and provide some of the facts surrounding the choice to use butter over margarine.
Butters come from milk fat in a variety of types: grass-fed, salted, unsalted, organic, whipped, etc. Margarine comes from different vegetable-based oils such as soy or palm. Butter has historically been used by different cultures worldwide as a flavor enhancer and cooking ingredient. Around the middle of the 20th century, however, people began to substitute margarine for butter as a less expensive and healthier option.
Nutritionally speaking, margarines have less saturated fat than butters, making them seemingly less harmful. Also, some margarine types have added plant sterols that have been clinically shown to lower cholesterol. Butter, on the other hand, has always been associated with higher cholesterol and an increased risk for heart disease. Even as new controversial studies attempt to disassociate saturated fat and cardiac conditions, foods containing saturated fats continue to be strongly related to heart disease.
Those who use butter over margarine rightly point out that butter does not contain the preservatives that margarine does, and it is universally considered a “purer” product. In fact, some types of butter such as grass-fed, light or whipped versions do contain less of the harmful saturated fat content.
Although margarines do not contain saturated fat, they sometimes have trans-fatty acids added, making them even worse for heart health than saturated fats found in butter. Butter may come in lower fat or “healthier” fat versions (grass-fed, etc.), but current research still indicates that this type of fat is harmful to arterial health.
For optimal flavor, most people would agree that butter tastes better than margarine. Just know that added fats used for flavor-enhancing purposes, even when from healthy sources, are still a strong source of concentrated calories.
Like most things, it’s ok to use butter or margarine…in moderation. Either can be used for baking, to grease a pan or as a spread. But there are other heart-healthy whole food alternatives you can spread over morning toast. Consider mashed avocado, tahini, peanut or almond butter, hummus or ground olives. These are all healthy choices you may want to try!