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Butter vs Margarine - Health impact and Nutrition Comparison

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Butter
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Margarine

INTRODUCTION

Which is healthier: butter or margarine? This has been an ongoing debate for many decades. A comparative analysis will show that both items have health advantages as well as disadvantages.
Butter is a dairy product that is manufactured by churning cream or milk. Swirling will help separate the solid components from the liquid ones. Butter has a multitude of uses, including in cooking, baking, or simply as a spread.
Margarine was created as a substitute for butter. It is a plant-based version of butter. It is made from canola oil, soybean oil, or other plant-based oils. Margarine may also include additives, colorants, and flavor enhancers. Through this discussion, one can conclude that having moderate amounts of both butter and margarine on-hand might allow a person to reap the benefits of both without initiating health conditions.

CREATION OF MARGARINE AS A BUTTER SUBSTITUTE

During the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon III called for finding a cheaper alternative to butter to cover the needs of the French workers and his armies in battle. The person in charge of that was Hippolyte Mèges-Mouries.  

The first margarine ever was patented in 1896 and was made by churning beef tallow with milk. Later, an established butter trading company bought the patent, and the trade of margarine was popularized. In 1902, the process of hardening oils by hydrogenation was patented as beef tallow availability limited margarine production. By 2000, health or economic benefits have turned margarine into the table spread of choice for many people (1).

NUTRITION

The visuals will be used to compare the nutritional content of butter and margarine. 

CALORIES 

Both items have the same amount of calories 717kcal/100g of the food eaten. Therefore, both items are considered to be high-calorie foods. According to the USDA, the average amount of calories in 1 tablespoon (14g) of butter and similarly of margarine contains around 100kcal.

CARBS

Both foods are very low in carbohydrates and are subsequently permitted for diabetics, people following a low carbohydrate diet, and other types of diets that will be discussed later.

PROTEINS

Both foods are low in protein—0.85g/100g for butter vs. 0.16g/100g for margarine. The average sedentary man requires 56 grams per day of protein, and the average passive woman needs 46 grams per day.

FATS

Butter is trans fat-free. On the other hand, margarine contains trans fats. Margarine is a highly refined product resulting from the hydrogenation of plant-based oils and other ingredients. The amount of trans fats included varies from one brand to another. Margarine contains a higher amount of monounsaturated fatty acids (38g/100g vs. 23g/100g). Similarly, it has eight times more polyunsaturated fatty acids in 100g than butter. Butter holds a higher saturated fat content. Margarine is cholesterol-free, while butter is not as it is derived from an animal product. Some margarine brands contain plant sterols, which play a role in lowering blood cholesterol (2).  A study showed that adding 2 g of plant sterol to an average daily portion of margarine reduced concentrations of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the serum. This reduction in LDL cholesterol would result in a 25% decrease in the chance of getting heart disease. Such an outcome is hypothesized to have a better effect than just reducing saturated fat intake (2). Butter is trans fat-free. On the other hand, margarine contains trans fats. This is due to the fact that margarine is a highly refined product resulting from the hydrogenation of plant-based oils and other ingredients. The amount of trans fats contained varies from one brand to another.

MINERALS

The mineral content of butter is a little higher than that of margarine , although it is still low. Butter is richer in copper, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. Meanwhile, margarine is richer in iron and magnesium. Margarine has lower sodium content than butter.

VITAMINS

Margarine has a higher vitamin score compared to that of butter. Butter is richer in vitamins B12, vitamin B3, and folate. Margarine is richer in vitamins C, A, E, B6, B1, and K. Both foods are equal in vitamin B2 content.

WEIGHT LOSS OR DIETS

For the DASH diet, opt for the lower sodium alternative. According to this analysis, margarine has lower sodium content. However, this may vary depending on the brand and whether the item is purposefully salted. For a vegan diet, choose the dairy-free option, which is the margarine. Butter is preferred over margarine for the possibility that some margarine brands may contain trans fats in Keto diets. Both food items can be consumed on low-carb diets. Concerning low fat and low-calorie diets, both foods are not recommended since they are calorific and high in fat. In the Atkins diet, both are acceptable as the Atkins diet focuses on restricting carbohydrates. The Mediterranean diet focuses on olive oil rather than butter or margarine whenever possible.

HEALTH IMPACT

HEALTH BENEFITS

FAT SOLUBLE VITAMIN ABSORPTION

Margarine is richer in vitamin A than butter by 43.1%  (considering 300g of the food is consumed) as most of the time, it is fortified. According to the USDA, 1tbsp of margarine contains 507IU of vitamin A. The recommended daily intake is 3,000 (900 mcg) for men and 2,330 IU (700 mcg) for women (3).  Vitamin A is one of the essential micronutrients that need to be taken from the food we eat. It has a wide range of functions, such as promoting healthy eyesight and the formation and maintenance of healthy teeth and skin. It’s important to note that high doses of Vitamins A are toxic, and care should be specially taken in pregnant women. Margarine contains +287.9% more vitamin E than butter. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant. It is known to aid in protecting cells from free radical damage. Moreover, margarine is richer than butter in vitamin K by +1228.6%.  Inflammation is recognized as the cornerstone of some chronic aging diseases. Scientific evidence points out that vitamin K has an anti-inflammatory effect (4). 

FAT AND SATIETY

Both margarine and butter are high-calorie and high-fat foods. The consumption of 300g of these foods covers the daily fat need by around 374%. Fats have been shown, in a controlled environment, to regulate appetite through many mechanisms such as the production of the appetite hormones and the prevention of gastric emptying. It is worthy of noting that things may be different in free-living conditions where the individual’s food behavior may be influenced by a mixture of genetic, psychological, and behavioral factors (5).

DOWNSIDES AND RISKS

ALLERGIES

A study was conducted in order to test the hypothesis that margarine intake is correlated with allergic diseases. The results showed that children with significant margarine intake had a higher risk for eczema and allergic sensitization, while butter consumption was not a feature of hypersensitive illnesses. However, margarine cannot be considered as a causal risk factor for allergies (6).

CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH

A study examined the theoretical effects of substituting butter with margarine on the risk of cardiovascular disease. This analysis claims that substituting butter and stick margarine with tub margarine may be correlated with a reduced chance of getting heart attacks (7). For quite a long time, butter and other saturated animal fats were viewed as unhealthy. Consequently, people have resorted to substituting butter with margarine as it was made from plant-based oils. However, the manufacturing process results in the formation of a by-product which is regarded as harmful to human health. These trans fats are similar to saturated fats. Trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol while lowering the good (HDL) cholesterol. This combination may result in cholesterol clogging the arteries leading to heart disease or heart attacks.

DIABETES

A moderate intake of butter is safe for those with diabetes. Diabetes management will be enhanced by choosing butter over margarine since trans fat consumption will be reduced. A study found that butter improves the insulin response better compared to olive oil. However, consuming large amounts of butter may lead to abnormally elevated levels of blood lipids and consequently lower insulin sensitivity for the long haul (8).

TASTE AND TEXTURE

Butter is known for its deep and rich flavor. Butter taste and texture depend on the balance of the chemical compounds it contains, but also on the animal the butter is produced from. Distinguishing animal characteristics include the diet and dietary supplementation of the animal, the time of the year in which it is made, and the processing phenomenon in general (9).  Margarine comes in two common kinds: stick and tub margarine. They are formulated in such a way to get to the closest to the spreadable consistency of butter at room temperature as possible and to be able to melt in the mouth (10).

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

A conducted study showed that margarine has less than half the environmental impact of butter in terms of global warming potential, eutrophication potential, and acidification potential. The land required to produce margarine is around half that needed to make butter. Margarine use approximately half of the necessary land used for producing butter products. Therefore, margarine is more environmentally favorable than butter (11).

COOKING AND BAKING

When it comes to baking, butter is the winner. Butter used in pastries and cookies offers a richer flavor. For cooking, butter is multi-purposeful. It can be used to grease pans. It can also be used for frying and sauteeing. The saturated fats in butter resist the breakdown by heat resulting in a better texture than unsaturated fats. The downside that butter has compared to vegetable oils is that its milk solid parts darken and then burns around 250ºF, which is less than 150º of the smoke point of many vegetable oils. Besides butter, stick margarine can be used to make icings as it is a little softer than butter in the refrigerator. Tub margarine, on the other hand, is spreadable because it is less saturated, but it is too soft to make icings (10).

RECOMMENDATIONS

There is no conclusive evidence that eating butter is healthy. It is true that margarine contains healthy fats such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. However, it is highly possible that it also contains trans fats. Recently, scientists have been using a process called interesterification to produce the same margarine without the formation of trans fat (12). People should buy margarine with trans fat-free label. For those watching their cholesterol, margarine may be recommended. The American Heart Association recommends diets that are low in saturated and translate fats (7). Moderate consumption in healthy individuals of both food items should be safe.

SUMMARY

There are still controversies regarding whether butter is healthier than margarine. Butter is rich in cholesterol, while margarine may contain trans fats. Butter is richer in vitamins B12, vitamin B3, and folate, while margarine is higher in vitamins C, A, E, B6, B1, and K. Finally, the choice depends on the person’s profile and his own needs.

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B012227055X007380 
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1127206/ 
  3. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/vitamin-a-and-your-bones#
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5026413/#
  5.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53550/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16618357/ 
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5480968/
  8. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/63/2/249/4650563
  9. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022030207716995
  10. http://wtf.tw/ref/mcgee.pdf
  11. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225411135
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28729812/
Article author photo Christelle  Tchakerian
Profession: Institute for Integrative Nutrition New York
Last updated: November 29, 2020

Infographic

Butter vs Margarine infographic
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Mineral Comparison

Mineral comparison score is based on the number of minerals by which one or the other food is richer. The "coverage" chart below show how much of the daily needs can be covered by 300 grams of the food
Butter
5
:
Contains more Calcium +700%
Contains more Potassium +33.3%
Contains more Copper +∞%
Contains more Zinc +∞%
Contains more Phosphorus +380%
Contains more Iron +200%
Contains more Magnesium +50%
Contains less Sodium -81.8%
Contains more Calcium +700%
Contains more Potassium +33.3%
Contains more Copper +∞%
Contains more Zinc +∞%
Contains more Phosphorus +380%
Contains more Iron +200%
Contains more Magnesium +50%
Contains less Sodium -81.8%

Vitamin Comparison

Vitamin comparison score is based on the number of vitamins by which one or the other food is richer. The "coverage" chart below show how much of the daily needs can be covered by 300 grams of the food
Butter
4
:
Contains more Vitamin B3 +82.6%
Contains more Vitamin B12 +70%
Contains more Folate, total +200%
Contains more Vitamin C +∞%
Contains more Vitamin A +43.1%
Contains more Vitamin E +287.9%
Contains more Vitamin B1 +100%
Contains more Vitamin B6 +200%
Contains more Vitamin K +1228.6%
Equal in Vitamin B2 - 0.037
Contains more Vitamin B3 +82.6%
Contains more Vitamin B12 +70%
Contains more Folate, total +200%
Contains more Vitamin C +∞%
Contains more Vitamin A +43.1%
Contains more Vitamin E +287.9%
Contains more Vitamin B1 +100%
Contains more Vitamin B6 +200%
Contains more Vitamin K +1228.6%
Equal in Vitamin B2 - 0.037

Vitamin and Mineral Summary Scores

Summary score is calculated by summing up the daily values contained in 300 grams of the product. Obviously the more the food fulfils human daily needs, the more the summary score is
Vitamin Summary Score
18
Butter
55
Margarine
Mineral Summary Score
3
Butter
1
Margarine

Macronutrients Comparison

Macronutrient comparison charts compare the amount of protein, total fats and total carbohydrates in 300 grams of the food. The displayed values show how much of the daily needs can be covered by 300 grams of the food
Protein
5%
Butter
1%
Margarine
Carbohydrates
0%
Butter
1%
Margarine
Fats
374%
Butter
373%
Margarine

Comparison summary table

Pay attention at the most right column. It shows the amounts side by side, making it easier to realize the amount of difference.
Butter Margarine
Lower in Cholesterol ok
Lower in Sugars ok
Lower in Sodium ok
Lower in Saturated Fat ok
Lower in glycemic index ok
Lower in price ok
Rich in minerals ok
Rich in vitamins Equal

Which food is preferable in case of diets?

ok
ok
is better in case of low diet
Butter Margarine
Low Calories diet Equal
Low Fats diet ok
Low Carbs diet ok
Low glycemic index diet ok

People also compare

Comparison summary

Which food is lower in Cholesterol?
Margarine
Margarine is lower in Cholesterol (difference - 215mg)
Which food contains less Sugars?
Margarine
Margarine contains less Sugars (difference - 0.06g)
Which food contains less Sodium?
Margarine
Margarine contains less Sodium (difference - 9mg)
Which food is lower in Saturated Fat?
Margarine
Margarine is lower in Saturated Fat (difference - 35.3g)
Which food is lower in glycemic index?
Margarine
Margarine is lower in glycemic index (difference - 50)
Which food is cheaper?
Margarine
Margarine is cheaper (difference - $1.1)
Which food is richer in minerals?
Butter
Butter is relatively richer in minerals
Which food is richer in vitamins?
?
It cannot be definitely stated which food is richer in vitamins. See charts below for detailed information.

All nutrients comparison - raw data values

In the column "Opinion" we made some assumptions which could be controversial. For instance we are assuming that less saturated fats is good for you. Please ignore this column if you have your own opinion.We marked the nutrients, comparison of which we considered as not meaningful, as "N/A"
Nutrient Butter Margarine Opinion
Calories 717 717
Protein 0.85 0.16 Butter
Fats 81.11 80.71 Butter
Vitamin C 0 0.2 Margarine
Carbs 0.06 0.7 Margarine
Cholesterol 215 0 Margarine
Vitamin D 0 0
Iron 0.02 0.06 Margarine
Calcium 24 3 Butter
Potassium 24 18 Butter
Magnesium 2 3 Margarine
Sugars 0.06 0 Butter
Fiber 0 0
Copper 0.016 0 Butter
Zinc 0.09 0 Butter
Starch
Phosphorus 24 5 Butter
Sodium 11 2 Margarine
Vitamin A 2499 3577 Margarine
Vitamin E 2.32 9 Margarine
Vitamin D 0 0
Vitamin B1 0.005 0.01 Margarine
Vitamin B2 0.034 0.037 Margarine
Vitamin B3 0.042 0.023 Butter
Vitamin B5 0.11 Butter
Vitamin B6 0.003 0.009 Margarine
Vitamin B12 0.17 0.1 Butter
Vitamin K 7 93 Margarine
Folate, total 3 1 Butter
Folic acid (B9) 0 0
Trans Fat 14.89 Butter
Saturated Fat 50.489 15.189 Margarine
Monounsaturated Fat 23.43 38.877 Margarine
Polyunsaturated fat 3.01 24.302 Margarine
Tryptophan 0.012 Butter
Threonine 0.038 Butter
Isoleucine 0.051 Butter
Leucine 0.083 Butter
Lysine 0.067 Butter
Methionine 0.021 Butter
Phenylalanine 0.041 Butter
Valine 0.057 Butter
Histidine 0.023 Butter
Fructose

References

The source of all the nutrient values on the page (excluding the main article the sources for which are presented seperately if present) is the USDA's FoodCentral. The exact links of the foods presented on this page can be found below.

  1. Butter - https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173430/nutrients
  2. Margarine - https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173585/nutrients

Data provided by FoodStruct.com should be considered and used as information only. Please consult your physician before beginning any diet.