Which is best for you? Butter or margarine? The debate is still raging. Discover the eleven areas of debate and the winner for each round.
2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the discovery of margaric acid, the ancestor of modern margarine. Most of those 200 years have been a struggle between these two ‘foods’, with the battle now fought between two powerful food lobbies and marketing campaigns.
Recently it looked like margarine was a clear loser. Its high level of trans fats got it labeled as “just one molecule away from plastic,” with the ability to quickly block your arteries and cause heart attacks and more.
But, now margarine has reinvented itself, decreasing trans fats and adding new healthy ingredients.
Cost was the driving factor behind the development of margarine and for many price-conscious consumers, it turns out to be a significant factor.
100 grams of margarine in a Canada Safeway costs 35 to 90 cents depending on the quality.
100 grams of butter starts at 90 cents and goes up to $1.50.
In most countries the dairy industry is either regulated or subsidized so consumers end up paying extra either at the till or in their taxes.
Note: Canadians take their butter and margarine seriously. Margarine was banned for 62 years during which time bootleg margarine was smuggled in from the former Dominion of Newfoundland for half the price of butter.
Although this is a more subjective topic, there is no question of the winner.
Decades ago when margarine seemed to be the latest ‘health trend’ many people dug in their heals to stay with butter on this aspect alone. There is something unique about the taste of butter. Many artificial flavorings try to copy it but are never totally successful.
Just the fact that we have phrases like “melt in your mouth like butter” shows its profound attraction.
3. Heart Healthy Saturated Fat Levels
This area was and is margarine’s strongest attempt to look healthier.
Butter has more saturated fats (averaging 50 grams of saturated fat per 100 grams) whereas margarines range from 10 to 35 grams depending on the quality.
Saturated fat for a long time was directly associated with higher rates of heart disease and other health problems.
It turns out this association may be wrong!
Many studies now can’t find a connection between the two. For example a study published in the March issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that risk of heart disease or stroke were similar between people who consumed the highest and lowest amounts of saturated fat.
Some saturated fats are now known to be extremely healthy for you. Virgin coconut oil, for example, has been shown to increase the absorption of other good essential fatty acids and even helps you to lose weight. When we test for the best oils for individuals, coconut oil often comes up highly recommended.
If saturation is a concern for you please note that all margarine still has some saturated fat and the cheaper margarines may contain significantly high levels of saturated fat, so you have to read labels carefully.
Winner: Margarine (by a slight margin)
Next page: Butter fights back.
4. Vitamins and Minerals
Remember that butter is a major part of milk – the only food a young cow thrives on.
Butter contains an easily absorbable vitamin A, E, K, and D).
Butter has higher levels of selenium, a trace mineral and morewarm powerful antioxidant than even garlic. Butter also supplies iodine, needed by the thyroid gland.
5. Cholesterol Content
Margarine contains NO cholesterol while all animal products (butter) contain cholesterol since the body creates its own cholesterol for essential functioning. High blood cholesterol levels are associated with heart disease, so major health associations warn against consuming over 300 mg./day.
Many researchers and nutritionalists maintain that blood cholesterol is dependent not on dietary cholesterol levels but how much our bodies naturally produce. They also point out that dietary cholesterol is necessary for intestinal health and that human breast milk is high in cholesterol.
6. Essential Fatty Acids
Butter has small, but equal, amounts of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. This for most people is a much healthier ratio than what we normally consume.
Margarine has started adding omega 3 fatty acids to its higher priced brands. Caution: The inexpensive butter that most people buy does NOT have these healthy additives.
Next page: the grand winner
7. Trans Fat Content
Margarine originally got its “hardness” from its unsaturated oils, and a hydrogenation process that filled up certain molecular bonds is what made it spreadable. This caused high levels of trans fats. Modern nutrition has now discovered that these artificial fats with their unnatural bonds have very strong negative consequences. So much so that manufacturers are required by law to declare the amount of trans fats on their labeling.
The health risks include:
- Triples the risk of coronary heart disease.
- Increases total cholesterol and LDL (the bad cholesterol) and lowers HDL cholesterol, (the good cholesterol).
- Increases the risk of cancers up to five times.
- Lowers quality of breast milk.
- Decreases immune response.
- Decreases insulin response.
Some margarines are now “hardened” with different methods. Again, this refers to the more expensive brands.
8. Specialized Fatty Acids
Butter contains a number of health-boosting fatty acids:
- Butyric acid- anti-carcinogen used by the colon as energy source.
- Lauric acid– potent antimicrobial and antifungal.
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) – prevention against cancer. (Highest in grass fed cows.)
- Glycospingolipids -protect against gastrointestinal infections, especially in the very young and the elderly.
9. Dairy Allergies and Sensitivities
IF you have a strong sensitivity to dairy products butter MAY be a problem.
Butter has small amounts of milk proteins which some may be allergic to. It also contains small amounts of lactose. Cultured or fermented butter has less but still has traces.
10. Level of Processing and Naturalness
Butter has been a staple for many cultures, created with minimal processing. Margarine, on the other hand, is a new “product” that keeps reinventing itself based on popular nutritional beliefs.
For many people the naturalness of butter is a deal-breaker, which is more important than any new research or nutritional orientation that might emerge.
Margarine has succeeded in avoiding the huge negative publicity it gained from trans fats but how do we know that some new health factor related to its processing will not emerge that is just as unhealthy–or even more so?
Even if the better margarines are not subjected to the same high heat process of hydrogenation, the oils that go into margarine have already been subjected to high heat and processing.
Butter is not one of the foods you MUST eat organic, but it is a good idea. You can also find organic margarine, although it is much harder to find.
Although margarine has made great improvements, it has not yet proved itself safe over time.
The ‘healthy’ margarine cost is now reaching and sometimes exceeding butter.
There are some special margarines available in health food stores that are made with very high quality ingredients. They are very expensive and perhaps should not be categorized as margarine.
Some people also just can’t stand the taste. Perhaps that is an indication of its true value?
Personally, I don’t have problems with dairy. But, even if I did, I would not use margarine.
What about you?
Next page: More healthy oils and alternatives.
Other Healthy Oils
Ghee is butter that has been heated at low temperatures until all the solids (proteins and sugars) are separated out.
For many people this will eliminate the dairy sensitivity.
- Ghee has been used within the Ayurvedic health system for thousands of years for its curative properties.
- Ghee thus has all of the benefits of butter without many of its problems and it tastes wonderful!
- I consider it a powerfood that should be in your kitchen.
- It is my personal favorite over butter.
Coconut butter is a saturated oil with many health benefits including:
- Lowers cholesterol.
- Causes weight loss.
- Has anti-cancer effects.
Because it lends a sweet taste it is great for many baking situations. I also consider it a powerfood.
Cold pressed, first press olive oil is another healthy oil that has been used for centuries with known health benefits including cancer prevention, reducing inflammation, and cholesterol and stabilizing blood sugar levels.
- Ideal for salads.
Sesame oil is one of the oldest condiments known to man. Read it’s 17 Health Benefits.
What is YOUR favorite oil? Are You A Butter Fan?
Written by Randy Fritz at Real Food For Life.com