Which is Healthier: Butter or Margarine?
There are several misconceptions when it comes to fat in general. A few decades ago, fat was to be avoided at all costs. Now, with fad diets like keto and paleo on the rise, fat is beloved again. Some experts argue that saturated fats are bad for health, while other research shows that certain types of fats can be more heart-healthy than carbs. A little confusing, right?
On top of that, there are numerous kinds of butters, margarines and spreadable fats available at the grocery store. They can vary in flavor, price and nutrition. To help you make sense of all of the spreads, here is a deep dive into the nutrition of several popular spreadable products.
Nutrition of Butter
Basically, no matter what brand you pick, butter has the following nutritional profile per tablespoon: 100 calories, 11 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat. (The grades, which range from AA to B, with AA being the best, have to do with quality-flavor, color, texture, etc.) The main nutritional variance is between salted and unsalted butter, which have around 91mg and 1mg of sodium respectively.
It might seem calorie-dense compared to other foods, but heart-healthy oils, such as olive and canola, pack just as many calories (or more). The reason butter can get a bad reputation when it comes to heart health is its high saturated fat content which, if eaten in excess, can boost blood cholesterol levels.
Nutrition of Whipped Butter
To produce a fluffier, lighter product (in terms of feel as well as calories and fats), manufacturers whip air into regular butter. Generally, a tablespoon of whipped butter delivers about 70 calories, 7 grams of fat, 4 grams of saturated fat. That is 30 fewer calories and 3 fewer grams of saturated fat, which can be helpful if you are trying to reduce your intake. That said, whipped butter might not perform as well in baked goods as regular butter, since it contains more air.
Nutrition of "Spreadable" Butters
Typically, these butters add just a little bit of oil (often canola), which makes them easier to spread. Their nutritional profiles are very similar to that of regular butter, though slightly lower in calories and saturated fats thanks to the added oil. One tablespoon of spreadable butter clocks in at 90 calories, 10 grams of fat and 4 grams of saturated fat.
Nutrition of Margarine and Other Spreads
While margarines and other shortening spreads used to contain harmful trans fats, these types of fats are no longer Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS), according to the FDA. In fact, a recent study in Public Health Nutrition found that more margarines and margarine-like products in 2020 has negligible amounts of trans fats since the FDA ban. Not to mention, these products are significantly lower in calories and saturated fat compared to butter. One tablespoon of tub margarine spread contains around 75 calories, 8 grams of fat and 2 grams of saturated fat.
While they might have less saturated fat, these products tend to sport long lists of ingredients, as they are more highly processed than standard butter or cooking oil. Most of these ingredients (e.g., maltodextrin, mono or diglycerides) are added to help keep the product stable for longer.
Nutrition of Stanol- or Sterol-Containing Spreads (Vegan "Butters")
Most vegan butter substitutes are made with a combination of plant-based oils and other plant-based compounds, like plant sterols and stanols. Plant sterols and stanols (also known as phytosterols) are plant-based compounds that research has shown to help lower cholesterol levels in the blood. (These compounds are similar in structure to cholesterol and so they compete with it for absorption in the body.) For this reason, many producers have created margarine-like products that include sterols and stanols as a heart-healthier alternative to butter. These spreads have patented formulas so it's hard to tell exactly what's in them beyond a blend of oils plus stanols or sterols. One tablespoon of "regular" stanol- or sterol-containing spread contains around 70 calories, 8 grams of fat and 1 gram of saturated fat. A "light" version contains closer to 50 calories, 5 grams of fat and 0.5 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.
The Bottom Line
So, what is healthier: butter or margarine? Or something else? The answer depends on your nutritional goals and what you enjoy the most. While butter and spreadable butters contain the most calories and saturated fat, they are still perfectly healthy to enjoy in moderation. If you prefer the flavor of butter to that of margarine or shortening, maybe try whipped butter on occasion if you are looking to lower your calorie and saturated fat intake. Margarine and shortening spreads are much safer now that they don't contain trans fats, but they are still more highly processed than butter and their ingredients can be unclear. They can be good options to reduce your saturated fat intake and help improve your cholesterol levels, but all types of solid and saturated fats should be consumed in moderation. There is room for any type of food or spread in a healthy eating pattern, so long as it's enjoyed mindfully.