Ask the Dietitian: Which is Better: butter or margarine?
This week I received this great question on my website from Laura:
Is margarine better for you than real butter? What is the truth behind margarine and is it really better for you?
Hi Laura! That is a great question, and one that many people often ask me. The truth is when it comes to butter or margarine in stick form, butter is actually better.
Now, don’t leave here thinking the dietitian told you that butter was healthy, I am just saying when it comes to stick butter vs. stick margarine, butter is the lesser of the two evils.
When we compare a stick of butter and a stick of margarine, we find that they both are high in fat. Also, they both have saturated fat that has been shown to raise blood cholesterol. Butter contains cholesterol, but margarine does not. However, margarine has trans fat, while butter does not.
We used to think that margarine was better for us than butter because we thought that cholesterol in food is what would raise our blood cholesterol, so we used margarine since it was cholesterol-free. However, now we know that it is not so much cholesterol in food that raises our blood cholesterol as it is saturated fat. Now we know that saturated fat is the thing in food that raises our cholesterol the most.
Chemically speaking, a saturated fat is one in which all the carbon atoms are saturated by hydrogen atoms. This makes it very hard for our bodies to break it down, so it ends up clogging our arteries. Trans fat is a man-made saturated fat in which a food manufacturer takes an unsaturated fat and blasts it with hydrogen atoms to make it into a saturated fat. It is the worst of all fats and the most artery-clogging of all. Since margarine has this trans fat in it that butter does not, it earns the spot of least heart healthy.
However, since both stick margarine and butter have saturated fat, neither is a very heart healthy choice. Instead I would recommend that you stick to cooking your food in heart healthy oils that have unsaturated fats, such as olive or canola oils. Or if you are looking for something to spread on your toast in the mornings, you might want to try a vegetable oil spread in a tub, especially if it includes plant sterols and stanols, which have been shown to have cholesterol lowering properties. And if you are baking something like cookies, where you just have to use a stick form, Smart Balance has recently come out with a 50/50 butter blend. It looks, tastes, and has the texture of butter, but it is 50% real butter and 50% vegetable oil spread, and it comes in stick form. While it is not as low in saturated fat as the oils and spreads I mentioned above, it is lower in saturated fat than butter and makes a nice alternative when baking. Above all, remember to choose heart healthy, unsaturated fats whenever you can!
Do you have a food or nutrition question? If so, go the the contact page of this website to submit your question, and I’ll answer it in a future blog post.