Butter and margarine are very similar products that are often used interchangeably in cooking and baking, but there are some key differences between them.
Butter is a dairy product made from milk/cream. It is created when cream is churned, and the butterfat (the solid part) is separated from the buttermilk (the liquid part). It is composed of 80% fat and 20% water.
On the other hand, margarine is made from oil, water, salt and emulsifiers which are components that stabilise an emulsion and have both hydrophobic (hate for water) and hydrophilic (love for water) properties. Margarine is made up of 80% vegetable oil and 20% water. It tastes like butter, but it doesn’t contain any dairy.
The process used to make margarine is called “hydrogenation”. In this process, the vegetable oils are converted into semi-solid fats by adding a hydrogen atom to the unsaturated bonds of the fatty acid chain, turning the unsaturated fat (healthy fat) into saturated fat (unhealthy fat). This is a process that food industries want to remove, as it causes the formation of trans-fatty acids which are one of the major risk factors of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease. At the same time, the process is needed to transform a liquid oil into a solid fat at room temperature, improves the taste of the product and renders it more resistant to degradation.
The key difference between margarine and butter is represented by the type of fat involved: butter has a very high content of saturated fats (70%) which are unhealthy fats. Public Health England recommends that men should not eat more than 30 g of saturated fats a day and women should not eat more than 20 g of saturated fats a day. An excess consumption of saturated fats can lead to high LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, heart and blood vessel disease.
On the other hand, margarine has more unsaturated fats (the healthy fats) because it is made from vegetable oils that contain unsaturated fatty acids such as canola oil. However, due to the hydrogenation process needed to make margarine, this spread contains trans-fatty acids that are considered more unhealthy than unsaturated fatty acids.
Trans-fatty acids are partially hydrogenated fats that are added to foods to prolong their shelf-life. They are known to raise LDL cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, liver dysfunction, type-2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Not only do they raise the bad LDL cholesterol, but they also reduce the healthy HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.
Nowadays, there is a debate as to whether butter is healthier than margarine or vice versa. Let’s dive into this a little deeper and have a look at the nutritional information of each of them.
100 g of butter contains 745 calories, 82 g of fats of which 52 are saturated and 0 g of trans-fatty acids.
100 g of margarine contains 663 calories, 73 g of fats of which 25 are saturated and 15 g of trans-fatty acids.
Although margarine has a lower content of saturated fats and is cholesterol-free, it contains much more trans fats than butter. Moreover, butter is a good source of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Vitamins must be fortified in margarines because the naturally occurring nutrients are destroyed during the hydrogenation process.
Studies initially indicated that margarine was healthier than butter because it contains less saturated fats, but newer studies have shown that trans fats found in margarine are linked much more closely to heart disease than saturated fats. Both fats raise cholesterol; however, trans fats are worse than saturated fats because they raise the bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) and lower the good cholesterol (HDL cholesterol). Eating just 4 teaspoons of margarine a day makes you 66% more likely to suffer from heart disease.
Overall, butter and margarine are two spreads that contain unhealthy fats and should be limited. Saturated fats should ideally be kept to 10% and trans fats should be eliminated completely from your diet.
Some food companies sell “trans-fat free” margarines but unfortunately, according to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), these spreads can still have a small amount of trans-fats (0.3 g or 0.5 g). The only way to know whether a product is trans fat-free is to choose one that has “no partially hydrogenated fats” listed in the ingredients.
If you are unsure whether to purchase margarine with no partially hydrogenated fats or butter, we recommend that you opt for butter. Butter is natural and unprocessed; whereas margarine is a highly processed food that relies on synthetic chemicals for flavour.
However, the best alternatives are represented by plant-based spreads made with pressed oils such as Flora. Plant-based spreads contain less saturated fats than both margarine and butter, and more unsaturated fats such as omega-3 and omega-6. They are not subjected to the hydrogenation process; therefore, they don’t contain any trans-fats.
Other alternatives are oils such as olive oil, avocado oil or rapeseed oil which are sources of healthy fats and contain antioxidants that have heart-protective and anticancer properties.
In conclusion, our final word is that these oils are preferred over butter, margarine and plant-based spreads. We always recommend using liquid oils, and particularly extra virgin olive oil which is renowned for being the healthiest of plant oils. But if you need to use a solid fat then butter is certainly the better choice over margarine if you're able to eat dairy, or plant based spreads if you are not able to eat dairy (in which case we recommend you try out our Dairy Free Plan!).