Since the introduction of margarine more than 150 years ago, consumers, researchers, and nutritionists alike have been debating if it really is any better than butter. On the one hand, companies like Becel highlight its beneficial omega-3 content and low level of saturated fats. On the flip side, some say margarine contains damaging trans fats.
So, who’s right? And when it comes to food preparation, which one should you use?
On the Surface: Butter Vs. Margarine
Butter and margarine are identical in terms of their calories and grams of fat. Both have 70 calories and 8g of fat per two teaspoons. But the type of fat in each of them is different. While butter contains 5g of saturated fat, there’s only 1g of saturated fat in margarine. The other 7g of fat come from mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Isn’t Saturated Fat Bad?
Saturated fat has gotten a bad rap over the years. Although the American Heart Association (and other groups) have linked saturated fats to heart disease and strokes, there’s actually an ongoing debate now on whether or not it’s as bad for us as we once thought.
Regardless, because margarine contains poly- and mono-unsaturated fats, it’s often described as being the healthier choice. After all, polyunsaturated fats are important for immune and cognitive functioning and help reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol. Simultaneously, monounsaturated fats found in olive oil or avocados reduce your risk of heart disease, benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, and improve blood cholesterol levels.
But here’s an important note: these great fats are only really beneficial in their raw, unadulterated form.
Saturated fats are super stable, meaning they can be exposed to heat, light, and oxygen without being affected. This is not the case for mono- and poly-unsaturated fats; expose them to heat, light, or oxygen and they go rancid.
Margarine-makers became a little jealous of hard, resilient butter and needed to come up with a way to mimic it. They decided to rely on a process called hydrogenation, which involves making unstable oils stable so they can be spread on toast, kept in the fridge for months on end, etc. But the process isn’t perfect and can cause a change to the very chemical structure—the byproduct of which is TRANS FATS. Remember, these are associated with problems like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, inflammation, and the list goes on. In other words, the process of hydrogenation puts trans fats in your margarine.
But What About Margarines That Are Trans Fat Free?
Lots of margarines today have a ’NO TRANS FAT’ sticker. That’s because it’s now made using a newer process called interesterification. We’re still figuring out what impact this has on our body, but one study showed that high intakes of interesterificated fats affect glucose and insulin metabolism, immune function, and liver enzymes.
Remember that margarine is also mostly made from canola oil—and 90% of canola oil is genetically modified. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been associated with toxicity, allergic reactions, a suppressed immune system, cancer, and more. Finally, having excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids in our system and not enough omega-3 fatty acids is a big contributor to inflammation. While margarines contain double the amount of omega-6’s to omega 3’s, this amount of equal in grass-fed butter.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve ever watched a video on how one of the main ingredients of margarine is made—canola oil—it’s just plain gross. And the process of making margarine is much more complicated than that of butter. That, to me, highlights one of the biggest advantages butter has over margarine: it’s natural. It contains naturally-occurring minerals, fat-soluble vitamins, and a fatty acid called butyric acid, which the body tends to use as a fuel rather than storing it. Butyric acid is also a “critical fuel source for the gut mucosa and is important for maintaining its integrity.” My advice would be to swap the margarine for grass-fed butter and use it in moderation.
But whether or not you’re a butter- or margarine-lover, here are some tips:
Choose margarine in a tub rather than the stick-form kind since it’s far less likely to contain trans fats.
Buy margarine with the “no trans fat” label. BUT if it says “partially hydrogenated oils” anywhere, it still has some trans fat, even if the label says otherwise!
Just because I think butter is a better choice doesn’t mean I’m suggesting you have five tablespoons of it a day. Make sure your fat is coming from different sources, and remember that no matter what the source it’s a very calorie-dense nutrient.
Buy natural, whipped butter when possible. It’s lighter and fluffier, meaning you’ll probably need less to get an even spread on your toast!
Lessard-Rheas, Brenda. Nutritional Pathology. 3rd ed. Richmond Hill: CSNN, 2015. Print.