Butter or Margarine: Which is Healthier?

With all the talk of cholesterol and trans fats, it can be confusing to figure out which product is better for your heart.

By Ginny Greene, Editor

We just can’t seem to quiet the debate over whether to use butter or margarine. Which is healthier?

Butter and margarine today come in numerous forms. Sticks, tubs, liquids and sprays, “whipped” and “light” products fill the grocery aisles. It’s no wonder the choice is confusing.

Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says butter, margarine and oil products fill an entire spectrum on a heart-healthy scale.

One of Blake’s special interests is how food relates to cardiovascular health. When it comes to butter versus margarine, she judges products loosely on their density. “Generally the more solid it is,” the denser in calories and solid fats it tends to be.

Stick butter and stick margarine are roughly equivalent in calories. From there, the differences stack up. Here are some things to think about before you buy.

Butter
Butter is made by churning dairy milk fat into a solid form. It’s high in cholesterol and saturated fat.

Saturated fats raise blood cholesterol levels. Diets that are high in saturated fats are associated with coronary heart disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a diet low in saturated fats.

With butter, sticks are the most solid form, and therefore the most heavy in calories and fat, Blake says.

Even so, as part of an otherwise low-fat, balanced diet, butter has its place — in small amounts. “I have clients who say to me, ‘I just love butter. I have to have butter on my toast.’ They’re not going to put vegetable oil on their toast.”

She suggests if you must have butter, use whipped butter. “Air has been whipped into it, so it has less butter per tablespoon and spreads more easily. It goes farther, so you use less with fewer calories.”

Just use a small smear, she says. In its solid form, one tablespoon of butter contains 100 calories and 12 grams of fat, including 7 grams of saturated fat. On a 2,000-calorie diet, one tablespoon makes up almost half your recommended saturated fat intake for the day.

Being an animal product, butter also delivers cholesterol — 31 grams with each tablespoon.

Margarine, then and now
Margarine is made from vegetable oil. Unlike butter, it contains no cholesterol and less saturated fat than butter (many types have less than 1 gram).

Margarine then:
Margarine was once thought to be a healthy alternative to butter, but many brands were high in trans fats.

Trans fats are made by a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation turns liquid oils into solid, spreadable fats.

Like saturated fats, trans fats raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Unlike saturated fats, they also lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol. So they do double damage.

Dietary guidelines call for limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats such as hydrogenated oils.

Margarine now:
The good news is that today, many margarines are free of trans fats or have only trace amounts. However, you can only know what ingredients you are getting by reading the packaging.

In addition to healthier trans-fat-free margarines, today some margarines are made with plant sterols. Sterols occur naturally in all plants. They block your body’s ability to absorb cholesterol. Eating foods made with sterols have been shown to slightly lower LDL cholesterol without lowering HDL cholesterol. That’s a good thing!

How to choose
Here are some things to look for as you compare products.

The nutrition labels will list different kinds of fat content. Pick the one that has the fewest grams of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. Try to avoid trans fat completely. If possible, pick a margarine product that says “0 trans fats” on the label.

But know that a product is allowed to say “0 trans fats” if the food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving. How do you know if a “zero” listing is really zero? Look for margarine that doesn’t have the words “partially hydrogenated” among the ingredients.

Blake comes back to her solids-to-liquids food spectrum. The spectrum starts with the most heart-healthy choice and moves up.

“If you can, use a tub margarine free of trans fats. Tub margarine also will have fewer calories than stick margarine because it contains water. The next step up is stick margarine. Then it progresses to whipped butter, then finally up to stick butter.”

When in doubt …
Another option is to avoid the butter-versus-margarine dilemma entirely by cooking with canola or olive oil. These heart-healthy oils are good for you. The dietary guidelines recommend replacing solid fats with oils when possible.

“We need oils in our diet,” Blake says. “Oils provide several types of essential fatty acids.”

Different vegetables provide different essential oils, she says. “I like to mix vegetable oils up — both for flavor and to vary the essential fats each provides.”

Still, keep an eye on portions. By weight, fat has more than twice the calories of carbohydrates and protein.

The big picture
In the end, whether you choose butter or margarine, use it sparingly. But keep the bigger picture in mind. A healthy diet is really about everything you eat, not just one food decision. An overall healthy approach to eating can decrease your risk of many chronic diseases.

“You can have a heart-healthy diet and still have some butter in it. It’s really what your whole diet looks like when it’s put together,” Blake says. All your small food decisions can add up to make a big difference.

If you think you need help with your food choices, a registered dietitian might be able to steer you in the right direction. And talk to your doctor to make sure you’re getting enough physical activity. Destination: healthy habits for life.

Greg Breining contributed to this report.