Q: Years ago, I switched from butter to margarine to reduce my cholesterol intake. Now I hear that margarine contains something even worse than cholesterol – trans fat – so I’m thinking about switching back to butter. Weighing the pros and cons, which one really is the healthier choice: butter or margarine?
Answer provided by Terese Scollard, M.B.A., R.D., L.D., regional clinical nutrition manager for Providence Nutrition Services:
Butter contains a lot of artery-clogging saturated fat, and margarine contains an unhealthy combination of saturated and trans fats, so the healthiest choice is to skip both of them and use liquid oils, such as olive, canola and safflower oil, instead.
However, even dietitians understand that some foods benefit greatly from a little buttery flavor; it wouldn’t be realistic to suggest that you give up butter and margarine altogether. If you want to use one or the other on occasion, margarine is the healthier choice overall – as long as you choose the right type of margarine.
Margarine comes in stick, tub and liquid forms now, and not all of them are created equal. Some stick margarines may be no better than butter in terms of their health effects. The best choices are soft or liquid margarines that have no (or very little) trans fat and less than 3 grams of saturated fat per serving.
Understanding the pros and cons of each option can help you make informed choices about what to use and how often (or seldom) to use it.
(Source: Food and Drug Administration; calories and info on canola oil added)
Pros: Butter is generally natural, made from just one or two ingredients: cream, and sometimes salt.
Cons: Cream – also known as milk fat – contains both saturated fat and cholesterol, the two dietary ingredients that raise blood cholesterol and increase the risk of heart and vascular diseases. A single tablespoon of butter contains 7 grams of saturated fat – that’s a third to a half of a day’s recommended amount! One tablespoon of butter also contains a whopping 100 calories.
Bottom line: Save butter for special recipes and occasions, and even then, use it sparingly.
Pros: Margarine is much lower in saturated fat than butter, and it is made from vegetable oils, so it contains no cholesterol.
Cons: Although it is lower in saturated fat, stick margarine still contains about the same amount of total fat and calories as butter.
In addition, the vegetable oil in many margarines goes through a process called hydrogenation (or partial hydrogenation), which adds hydrogen to the oil to solidify it into a stick or spread. This process creates trans fat, which is even worse for you than saturated fat. Trans fat raises LDL (bad) cholesterol significantly – much more than saturated fat does. It also lowers HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol that helps prevent LDL cholesterol from building up in your arteries. The harder the margarine, the more trans fat it contains. (Note: Although some butters also contain scant amounts of trans fats, these are naturally occurring and probably don’t have the same effect in the body as trans fats created through hydrogenation.)
Margarine also contains high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, nutrients that are essential in a balanced diet, but that may cause problems in high quantities when they are not balanced with omega 3 fatty acids. While the ideal balance of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids ranges from 1:1 to 4:1, Americans today consume a ratio that is closer to 14:1 to 20:1. The sharp increase in omega 6 fatty acids in the last century is due mainly to our increased consumption of processed oils and the snacks, baked goods and packaged foods that contain them. Several studies suggest a link between our increasing consumption of omega-6 fatty acids and the steep rise in rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and other diseases in the U.S.
Pros: Soft tub and liquid margarines contain less trans fat than harder stick margarines. They also are lower in saturated fat and calories than stick margarine or butter. And like other margarines, they are cholesterol free. Newer options are available that are trans-fat free, and some brands are now enriched with plant sterols, which block the absorption of cholesterol and can help lower LDL cholesterol.
Cons: Like stick margarines, tub and liquid margarines contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. They may still contain some trans fat, as well. Manufacturers are allowed to claim “0 trans fat” on their Nutrition Facts labels even if their products have up to half a gram of trans fat per serving.
Bottom line: Tub and liquid margarines are a healthier choice than butter or stick margarine. Read labels carefully to look for the healthiest choices. If you are trying to minimize trans fat in your diet, check the ingredients list as well as the Nutrition Facts label. If partially hydrogenated oil is listed, it contains trans fat.
Pros: These natural oils are rich in heart-friendly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and they contain a healthy balance of omega-6 fatty acids and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, as well.
Cons: Even though these are mostly healthy fats, they are still fats, which means they are extremely high in calories, packing a whopping 120 calories per tablespoon – even more than butter.
Bottom line: Olive, canola and safflower oils are healthier choices overall than butter and most margarines. Use them as replacements for butter and margarine in most of your cooking, but watch the amounts – those fat calories can add up fast.
When you switched from butter to margarine the first time around, you probably tasted several brands before you found one you liked. Now that you are considering switching again, try another taste test.
Several healthier margarine choices have shown up on grocers’ shelves in recent years. Pick out a few to try, or ask for recommendations from people who have already made the switch. Then invite some friends, family members or neighbors over, toast up some healthy, whole-grain bread, and compare the flavors of your different spreads. There’s bound to be at least one that passes your “toast test.”
Continue to watch for new products and try new things periodically. Public concern about trans fat is prompting many manufacturers to explore new ways to remove trans fats from stick margarines, and even to reduce the saturated fat in butter. Oils are getting attention, too, such as the new diglyceride-rich oil “Enova,” which is metabolized differently, reducing the amount of oil that is stored as fat in the body.
There are a lot of options out there, and a lot more to come. If you choose the healthier options most of the time, you’ll still have room for the occasional dab of butter on your summer corn.
For more information on fats, see Ask an Expert: Fat facts.
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