Paging Dr. Frischer: Butter vs. margarine

Butter or margarine? It’s complicated! Let’s explore the pros and cons of each.

This long-time debate has been a battle of culture, nutrition, finances, and marketing. For most of the time, margarine was badly outmatched. Margarine was developed in the 1800s in France when butter was scarce and expensive. In 1911, the average American ate almost 19 pounds of butter per year, while consuming about a single pound of margarine. The butter industry even managed to successfully lobby that in many states, yellow margarine could not be sold. During World War II, however, there were butter shortages and a rise in margarine use. By 1957, Americans ate as much margarine as butter – about 8.5 pounds per year of each. Margarine was marketed as healthier and cheaper.

What is butter? Regular butter has just one ingredient: cow’s milk or cream, churned or shaken until it reaches a semisolid state. By definition, it contains at least 80% milk fat. It takes about 11 quarts of milk to make one pound of butter. Because butter is made from animal fat, it contains saturated fat.

What is margarine? It is a vegetable oil based, butter-flavored spread that contains 80% oil. If the oil and fat content is less than 80%, it is a “soft margarine spread.” It is thought of as a healthier, plant-based alternative to butter, but it is not that simple. Although it contains either no saturated fat, or at least less saturated fat then does butter, stick margarine does contain trans fats, which help to keep its oil-based ingredients solid at room temperature. Trans fats are bad for the heart.

So, butter contains saturated fats, and some margarine contains trans fats (and possibly some saturated fats as well). Which spread is healthier for the heart? The American Heart Association’s answer is margarine that typically comes in a tub (not a stick), which does not contain either saturated and trans fats. And, since margarine is made from vegetable oils, it contains polyunsaturated and monounsaturated “good” fats. These fats help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol.

If you do choose butter, it comes with some choices. It can be salted or unsalted. Most butter sticks contain 100 calories per tablespoon, with 11 grams of fat, seven of which are saturated. That is one third of an entire day’s recommended amount of saturated fat. However, note that the process of whipping can add air to butter, making it lighter and less dense. If you stick to the same tablespoon size portion, you might save about half the calories and fat. Butter can also be found with an even higher fat content, like Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter. If you’re watching your fat, beware of words like “rich,” “cultured,” or “European style.”

If you do choose margarine, some are blended with added olive or canola oil. While this does not cut the calories, it does lower the amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol. These butter blends are typically softer and easier to spread. “Light,” “low fat,” whipped,” or “soft spread” usually means that a spread has added water, air, or fillers that can lower the calories to as few as 50 in a tablespoon.

Consider the healthiest option of all: skip butter and margarine altogether. Try avocado, or nut butters. These alternatives still contain fat, but it’s a healthful fat that will help, not harm, the heart. 

Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.