Catherine Saxelby challenges the long-held myth that butter is better than margarine.
Butter: it’s natural, made from dairy fat and salt, has been around ever since humans started herding cows, and it tastes divine.
Margarine, on the other hand, has only been with us for just over 100 years. It was invented during Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign in the 1870s, as a butter substitute for his troops in the field on his many military campaigns. These days, it’s made from oils – usually canola, olive or sunflower – which are mixed with a little solid vegetable fat base (which is what turns it into a semi-solid spread), skim milk, water, emulsifiers and vitamins A and D.
So which is healthier?
Well, the answer depends on your health profile and what you’re looking for. If you and your family are in good health, your overall diet is healthy and you want as natural a diet as possible, then butter is fine in moderation. But if you have high cholesterol or a family history of heart disease, then margarine is a wiser choice for the following reasons.
It keeps your cholesterol in check
At 15–25 per cent saturated fat, margarine has less ‘bad’ saturated fat and more heart-healthy unsaturated fats than butter. It’s the spread of choice for the Heart Foundation in all its recommendations. Up until the 1990s, margarines had a lot more trans fat due to the hydrogenation process that turns liquid oils into a semi-solid spread. (This created synthetic trans fatty acids that raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol; both considered bad for heart disease risk.) But these days, virtually all the margarines in Australia are free of trans fats (containing less than 1 per cent), a situation different to the US and UK. (So check the label when purchasing margarine overseas.) The only exceptions are hard (‘stick’) margarines, so these are best avoided.
It’s spreadable, straight from the fridge
This means you use less, which is good for your waistline and, ultimately, your heart. In fact, a US study of 46 families reported that swapping from butter to margarine successfully lowered blood cholesterol levels, although this effect depended on overall body weight. If you really want to lower your cholesterol, a margarine with added plant sterols is best, as plant sterols block cholesterol absorption.
Choose between ‘natural-ness’ and flavour, or less saturated fat. Whichever you go for, look for one that’s salt-reduced and use it sparingly. We don’t need heaps of either.
NOTE: Most margarines today are legally required to be called ‘spreads’, as they contain only 60–70 per cent fat. (Technically, only a product with 80 per cent fat can be called margarine.) However, we’ve used the term ‘margarine’ here to cover all non-butter spreads, for ease of understanding.