There has been much debate over the years about which is better of us, Butter or Margarine. Many individuals attempting to lose weight and adopt a healthier lifestyle are clambering to know the truth. We have been told to stay away from butter, and have listened to marketers push margarine as the healthiest option, but is this the way to go?
The MYTH Behind The Margarine Legend:
I’m sure we have all received the email stating that Margarine is one molecule away from plastic. I even had friends in the plastic industry tell me this statement was true, and because they said so, I bought into it for awhile. Until I thought more about this statement, and decided to delve into a little biology.
Allow me to enlighten you, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief, as Margarine actually shares no chemical similarities with plastic. The primary ingredients in margarine include:
- Vegetable oil
- Skim milk
- Emulsifiers (Food additives)
Plastics, on the other hand are composed of long molecules called polymers. Even if margarine was “one molecule away” from being plastic, that claim has no real meaning in science because the slightest variation in molecular structure between two substances can cause a great difference in substances. For example, water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O). Hydrogen peroxide, on the other hand, is composed of two hydrogen atoms and two oxygen atoms (H2O2). Although the two substances are only one atom different, they are vastly different substances, proving this claim holds no value.
The Truth About Margarine:
Margarine has been promoted as a heart healthy option to butter, but is that the truth or more fiction? Here is what I can say after breaking down the ingredients and it’s manufacturing process.
Margarine is made from vegetable oils, so it contains no cholesterol. It is also higher in “good” fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) than butter. These types of fat help reduce (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol, when substituted for saturated fat. This said, Margarine is by no means void of artery clogging fat.
Hydrogenation & Trans Fats
The controversy with margarine lies within it’s level of trans fats and how it is processed. Trans fats are a man-made fat formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oils, making the oil more solid and less likely to spoil (the more solid the margarine, the more trans fat it contains). This process is called hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation and makes stick margarine firm at room temperature. These vegetable oils (mostly soy and cottonseed) are processed under extreme conditions such as high heat, high pressure and chemical solvents are used to extract the oil. Vegetable oils are largely comprised of polyunsaturated fatty acids which degrade easily, and they degrade even more easily after the extreme processing. Then, if you use margarine to cook with, again adding more heat, if will degrade even further.
Trans fats have been shown to increase the “bad” cholesterol (LDL) similarly to saturated fats, and they tend to lower the “healthy” (HDL) cholesterol when eaten in large amounts. Furthermore, trans fats may make our blood platelets stickier. While no standard intakes of trans fat have been set, one tablespoon of stick margarine packs a whopping 3 grams of trans fat and 2 grams saturated fat.
Spreads such as Benecol and Smart Balance claim they are free of trans fats and are fortified with plant stanols and sterols, which lower the ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL ) by 6-15%, without lowering the good cholesterol known as the ( HDL). But I am finding that they also contain Partially Hydrogenated Soy Bean Oil and Hydrogenated Soy Bean Oil which would mean the existence of trans fats. Technically, they can still mark the label as “0 trans fats” because it has less than .5 grams per one tablespoon serving.
Other findings about margarine include the fact that many contain a food colorings, one in particular is known as Yellow 6 which is derived from petroluem. This coloring has been linked to ADHD, food allergies (aspirin allergies), and cancer. Yellow 6 is banned in several European countries and is being phased out of the UK.
The Facts About Butter
Butter is an animal fat and it is largely comprised of saturated fat containing cholesterol. Saturated fat can increase risk of cardiovascular disease when consumed in excessive amounts. One research study has shown that 3 tablespoons of butter per day over 4 weeks can increase total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol. So if you use butter, you will want to keep the amount at a moderate level of no more than 1-2 tablespoons per day. But the good news is saturated fat is heat-stable, meaning that it is not as likely to degrade by cooking like margarine. Fats in butter are far superior to the rancid, highly processed vegetable oils because they are not hydrogenated.
Also butter, particularly grassfed butter, is one of the richest sources of vitamin K2 which is known to prevent arterial calcification which is a very strong (if not the strongest) predictor of cardiovascular disease, NOT cholesterol levels. Butter also has loads of natural vitamin A, D, and E that really will boost your immune system unlike the synthetic versions in margarine spreads.
Truth be told, nothing manufactured in a factory and genetically modified with artificial flavors & colors or organic pollutant preservatives can never win over simple, natural, whole nutrition. So if you are still afraid to use whole butter consider using whipped or light butter. You can also look for products that are a blend of butter and olive or canola oil. Per serving, these products have less fat and calories than regular butter does. The important thing is to use them sparingly.
Butter or Margarine: The Verdict
Both saturated fats and trans fats can raise total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, so you should try to minimize the intake of BOTH saturated fats and trans fats.
Although Margarine may not contain cholesterol, and many brands have gotten rid of the trans fats, it’s chemically altered, and manufactured items are never good as good for humans to ingest as natural ones.
Butter is high in saturated fat, but it can be purchased in low fat & whipped varieties and is ALL NATURAL.
Best Bet: Whipped Butter
The process of whipping adds air to the butter, making it lighter and less dense. If you can stick with the same tablespoon-size portion, you’ll save up to half the calories and saturated fat by choosing whipped butter in a tub.
Land O’Lakes Whipped Butter, for example, contains 50 calories and 6 grams of fat (3.5 grams saturated), and only 15 milligrams of cholesterol per serving, making this brand or other like it, the best solution for your needs from my research and findings.
Butter vs. Margarine Infograph