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Butter vs Margarine - Health impact and Nutrition Comparison

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Article author photo Christelle  Tchakerian by Christelle Tchakerian | Last updated on November 29, 2020
Education: Institute for Integrative Nutrition New York
Butter
vs
Margarine

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 vitamin B12, vitamin B3, and folate, while margarine is higher in vitamins A, C, E, B6, B1, and K.

Ultimately, the choice depends on the person’s profile and personal needs.

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 helps 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, 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, economic benefits had turned margarine into the table spread of choice for many people (1).

Nutrition

The visual infographics below will be used to compare the nutritional content of butter and margarine.

Calories

Both items have the same amount of calories, 717kcal per 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.

Carbohydrates

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

Protein

Both foods are low in protein - 0.85g per 100g for butter vs. 0.16g per 100g for margarine.

The average sedentary man requires 56 grams of protein per day, 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 fat included varies from one brand to another.

Margarine contains more 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 2g of plant sterol to an average daily portion of margarine reduced low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol concentrations in the serum. This reduction in LDL cholesterol would result in a 25% decrease in the risk of getting heart disease. Such an outcome is hypothesized to have a better effect than just reducing saturated fat intake (2).

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 a lower sodium content than butter.

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
Contains more Calcium +700%
Contains more Phosphorus +380%
Contains more Potassium +33.3%
Contains more Zinc +∞%
Contains more Copper +∞%
Contains more Iron +200%
Contains more Magnesium +50%
Contains less Sodium -81.8%
Calcium Iron Magnesium Phosphorus Potassium Sodium Zinc Copper 8% 1% 2% 11% 3% 2% 3% 6%
Calcium Iron Magnesium Phosphorus Potassium Sodium Zinc Copper 1% 3% 3% 3% 2% 1% 0% 0%
Contains more Calcium +700%
Contains more Phosphorus +380%
Contains more Potassium +33.3%
Contains more Zinc +∞%
Contains more Copper +∞%
Contains more Iron +200%
Contains more Magnesium +50%
Contains less Sodium -81.8%

Vitamins

Margarine has a higher vitamin score compared to 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.

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 Folate +200%
Contains more Vitamin B12 +70%
Contains more Vitamin A +43.1%
Contains more Vitamin E +287.9%
Contains more Vitamin C +∞%
Contains more Vitamin B1 +100%
Contains more Vitamin B6 +200%
Contains more Vitamin K +1228.6%
Equal in Vitamin B2 - 0.037
Vitamin A Vitamin E Vitamin D Vitamin C Vitamin B1 Vitamin B2 Vitamin B3 Vitamin B5 Vitamin B6 Folate Vitamin B12 Vitamin K 150% 47% 0% 0% 2% 8% 1% 7% 1% 3% 22% 18%
Vitamin A Vitamin E Vitamin D Vitamin C Vitamin B1 Vitamin B2 Vitamin B3 Vitamin B5 Vitamin B6 Folate Vitamin B12 Vitamin K 215% 180% 0% 1% 3% 9% 1% 0% 3% 1% 13% 233%
Contains more Vitamin B3 +82.6%
Contains more Folate +200%
Contains more Vitamin B12 +70%
Contains more Vitamin A +43.1%
Contains more Vitamin E +287.9%
Contains more Vitamin C +∞%
Contains more Vitamin B1 +100%
Contains more Vitamin B6 +200%
Contains more Vitamin K +1228.6%
Equal in Vitamin B2 - 0.037

Weight Loss and 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 contains added salt.

For a vegan diet, choose the dairy-free option, which is margarine.

Butter is preferred over margarine on a keto diet as some margarine brands may contain trans fats.

Both food items can be consumed during low-carb diets.

Both foods are not recommended concerning low-fat and low-calorie diets since they are high in fats and calories.

In the Atkins diet, both are acceptable as this 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% 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 IU (900 mcg) for men and 2,330 IU (700 mcg) for women (3).

Vitamin A is one of the essential micronutrients that we need to take from our food. 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 vitamin A are toxic, and special care should be 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 indicates 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 portions of these foods covers the daily fat need by around 374%.

In controlled environments, fats have been shown to regulate appetite through mechanisms such as the production of appetite hormones and the prevention of gastric emptying. It is worth 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).

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).

Downsides and Risks

Allergy

A study was conducted 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 of eczema and allergic sensitization, while butter consumption was not a feature of hypersensitive illnesses. However, margarine cannot be considered 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 is made from plant-based oils. However, the manufacturing process results in the formation of a by-product that 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.

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 from which it is produced. Distinguishing animal characteristics includes 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 as close as possible to the spreadable consistency of butter at room temperature to be melted in the mouth (10).

Environmental Impact

A 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 of that needed to make butter. 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 of butter compared to vegetable oils is that its solid milk parts darken and burn at 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 a trans-fat-free label. For those watching their cholesterol, margarine may be recommended. The American Heart Association recommends diets low in saturated and trans fats (7). Moderate consumption in healthy individuals of both food items should be safe.

References

  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
Education: Institute for Integrative Nutrition New York
Last updated: November 29, 2020

Infographic

Butter vs Margarine infographic
Infographic link

Comparison summary table

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

All nutrients comparison - raw data values

Nutrient Butter Margarine Opinion
Net carbs 0.06g 0.7g Margarine
Protein 0.85g 0.16g Butter
Fats 81.11g 80.71g Butter
Carbs 0.06g 0.7g Margarine
Calories 717kcal 717kcal
Starch g g
Fructose g g
Sugar 0.06g 0g Margarine
Fiber 0g 0g
Calcium 24mg 3mg Butter
Iron 0.02mg 0.06mg Margarine
Magnesium 2mg 3mg Margarine
Phosphorus 24mg 5mg Butter
Potassium 24mg 18mg Butter
Sodium 11mg 2mg Margarine
Zinc 0.09mg 0mg Butter
Copper 0.016mg 0mg Butter
Vitamin A 2499IU 3577IU Margarine
Vitamin E 2.32mg 9mg Margarine
Vitamin D 0IU 0IU
Vitamin D 0µg 0µg
Vitamin C 0mg 0.2mg Margarine
Vitamin B1 0.005mg 0.01mg Margarine
Vitamin B2 0.034mg 0.037mg Margarine
Vitamin B3 0.042mg 0.023mg Butter
Vitamin B5 0.11mg mg Butter
Vitamin B6 0.003mg 0.009mg Margarine
Folate 3µg 1µg Butter
Vitamin B12 0.17µg 0.1µg Butter
Vitamin K 7µg 93µg Margarine
Tryptophan 0.012mg mg Butter
Threonine 0.038mg mg Butter
Isoleucine 0.051mg mg Butter
Leucine 0.083mg mg Butter
Lysine 0.067mg mg Butter
Methionine 0.021mg mg Butter
Phenylalanine 0.041mg mg Butter
Valine 0.057mg mg Butter
Histidine 0.023mg mg Butter
Cholesterol 215mg 0mg Margarine
Trans Fat g 14.89g Butter
Saturated Fat 50.489g 15.189g Margarine
Monounsaturated Fat 23.43g 38.877g Margarine
Polyunsaturated fat 3.01g 24.302g Margarine

Which food is preferable for your diet?

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

People also compare

Vitamin and Mineral Summary Scores

The summary score is calculated by summing up the daily values contained in 300 grams of the product. Obviously the more the food fulfills human daily needs, the more the summary score is.
Vitamin Summary Score
21
Butter
55
Margarine
Mineral Summary Score
4
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 food.
Protein
5%
Butter
1%
Margarine
Carbohydrates
0%
Butter
1%
Margarine
Fats
374%
Butter
373%
Margarine

Comparison summary

Which food is lower in Sugar?
Margarine
Margarine is lower in Sugar (difference - 0.06g)
Which food contains less Sodium?
Margarine
Margarine contains less Sodium (difference - 9mg)
Which food is lower in Cholesterol?
Margarine
Margarine is lower in Cholesterol (difference - 215mg)
Which food is lower in Saturated Fat?
Margarine
Margarine is lower in Saturated Fat (difference - 35.3g)
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 lower in glycemic index?
?
The foods have equal glycemic indexes (0)
Which food is richer in vitamins?
?
It cannot be stated which food is richer in vitamins. See the charts below for detailed information. See the charts below for detailed information. See the charts below for detailed information.

References

The source of all the nutrient values on the page (excluding the main article the sources for which are presented separately if present) is the USDA's FoodCentral. The exact links to 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

All the Daily Values are presented for males aged 31-50, for 2000 calorie diets.

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