Years ago, butter was considered a no-no. Vegetable-oil-based margarine surged in popularity as doctors began to understand the dangers of saturated fat. But the butter-versus-margarine choice turned out be more complicated. Some margarine has unhealthy trans fats. Meanwhile, some say butter is an “all-natural” choice.
Margarine usually tops butter when it comes to heart health. Margarine is made from vegetable oils, so it contains unsaturated “good” fats — polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These types of fats help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol when substituted for saturated fat.
Butter, on the other hand, is made from animal fat, so it contains more saturated fat. But not all margarine is created equal — some margarine contain trans fat. In general, the more solid the margarine, the more trans fat it contains. So stick margarine usually have more trans fat than tub margarine do. Trans fat, like saturated fat, increases blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. In addition, trans fat lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol levels. So skip the stick and opt for soft or liquid margarine instead.
The healthiest choice might be to skip both of them and use liquid oils, such as olive, canola and safflower oil, instead. However, 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 may 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 margarine may be no better than butter in terms of their health effects. The best choices are soft or liquid margarine that have no (or very little) trans fat and less than 3 grams of saturated fat per serving.
The table below shows how each option stacks up in terms of calories, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol.
(Source: Food and Drug Administration)
Public concern about trans fat is prompting many manufacturers to explore new ways to remove trans fats from stick margarine, and even to reduce the saturated fat in butter. Oils are getting attention, too, such as the diglyceride-rich oil Enova, which is metabolized differently, reducing the amount of oil that is stored as fat in the body.