Butter is basically a dairy product produced by churning milk to separate the butterfat from the buttermilk. For a particular product to be called butter, it must be derived from milks. In addition, butter can also contain salt, water, flavour-producing microorganisms and lactic acid producing microorganisms.
Margarine is a non-dairy product made up of edible plant oils and water. In order for it to become solid like butter it must go through a chemical process called hydrogenation. It contains at least 80 grams of edible plant oils per 100 grams. Like butter, it can also contain salt, water, edible proteins, lactic acid producing microorganisms, flavour producing microorganisms and milk products (the milk products are only added).
Which one won the fight? Which one is healthier?
The answer to this question is a tricky one. The safe answer would be, it depends on which decade or period you’re referring to. Let’s backtrack briefly.
Which one won the fight?
Butter was in such demand in France that the emperor of France offered prize money to anyone who could find an alternative. A lucky French chemist won the prize with his invention of margarine in 1869. His margarine was made from beef tallow flavoured with milk and spread like butter.
Hydrogenated oils were developed and vegetable margarine was born.
Butter consumption was much higher than margarine, but this began to change.Crisco, a major brand of shortening in the US, was introduced to the public as a healthier substitute for butter and lard.At this time the major players present were butter, margarine and Crisco.
World War II shortages of butter caused an increase in margarine consumption.
Butter and margarine consumption were relatively even. Around this time saturated fat was vilified and supposedly heart-friendly vegetable spreads and margarines (hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated) were seen as healthier alternatives.
At the peak of margarine consumption, margarine far outweighed butter consumption.
New research warned of adverse effects on blood lipid levels from eating hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils (due to the trans fatty acids). Studies also showed an increased risk for coronary artery disease.Margarine and Crisco, being partly made up of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils took a back seat. Butter rose up from the shadows, as a healthier alternative.In response, the producers of margarine made new varieties that had less or no trans-fats.
The US FDA finally accepted that trans fatty acids were bad and required food companies to list the trans-fat content of their products on the label.
Now many consumers are at a crossroads. They’re trying to workout which of the two, margarine or butter is healthier.However its now common knowledge that man-made trans fats are bad for our health.Additionally, new research has confirmed that saturated fat is important for our health and actually good for us. Butter is naturally rich in the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E & K & other nutrients.Butter also has a balanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 essential fatty acids. While most margarines are high in omega-6s which have a pro-inflammatory effect in the body.For these reasons we are seeing a renewed trend of butter consumption throughout the world.To read more about saturated fats including butter Click here.
A big difference between the two which cannot be ignored is that butter is a natural food, while margarine is essentially man-made. Butter production involves very minimal processing without nasty chemicals being added. In fact conventional butter production has hardly changed from the traditional methods used.
On the other hand margarine is made by converting vegetables oils to a fat thats solid at room temperature using a hydrogenation process. In addition to making the product resemble butter more closely, hydrogenation also improves the products shelf life and the stability of the flavour. Hydrogenation is accomplished through the addition of a hydrogen atom to a fatty acid, however this results in a trans fatty acid. The most worrisome words in the preceding statements are hydrogenation and trans fats. There is a growing body of evidence telling us that the trans fatty acids created when oils are hydrogenated can cause harm to our cells. Research has found that artificial trans fats can lower LDL cholesterol, and they may also raise triglycerides in the blood which are a major risk factor for heart disease. Grr.
After a tumultuous short food history lesson between margarine and butter, you should now be able to decide for yourself which of the two (butter or margarine) is healthier. Just be careful not to let misleading advertisements confuse you.