Well, they might look the same, but there’s a hell lot of difference between the two, because beneath their melting yellow layers, lies an untold story.
Deep inside, we all have been ardent fans of the utterly butterly delicious, but then since the past few decades, your ears must have been exhausted from the undying claims by health professionals about the so called “healthy” margarine.
So, this week, on my food myth series, I’m going to put an end to the age old battle for the crown of superiority between the long loved butter and the manufacturer’s promising margarine.
I’ll begin with detailing each of these foods right from how they are made and what nutritional value they have to offer. As you reach the bottom of this article, you will be at a far better position to make your own choice.
Let’s Talk Original First
To know what’s good or bad, you need to know how each of these foods are created.
When it comes to making butter, the process is quite simple. It is made by churning out the cream of cow’s milk until it reaches a semi solid state. The leftover milk, is removed. The butter is then pasteurized at a high temperature repeatedly to remove any potential disease causing germs or bacteria. Pasteurization allows it to stay fresh longer.
The Answer To A Substitute
Originally created from skimmed milk and beef tallow, margarine was the outcome of a challenge proposed by Emperor Louis Napolean III in 1869, to bring into the market, an inexpensive substitute for butter.
Unlike butter, margarine is essentially made of refined vegetable oils like soybean and safflower, water and emulsifiers, it is hydrogenated in order to form the semi solid state and remain in that state at room temperature.
This is done by exposing the oils to extreme heat and pressure and the oil is extracted by using chemical solvents. Further additives may be used for coloring.
Dig A Little Deeper
Now that’s a rough outline, but you got an idea for sure. Moving closer to the point, let’s find out how much they rank on the nutrition chart.
Butter is made from animal fat and as such rich in cholesterol and saturated fats. 100g of butter contains approximately 80g saturated fat and approximately 717 calories. The numbers remain the same for margarine.
The difference lies in the type of fats. While butter is full of saturated fats, margarine contains polyunsaturated (PUFA) and monounsaturated fats (MUFA). The later are considered as good fats as they help lower the level of bad cholesterol in your blood and prevent heart disease.
Earlier studies had established that saturated fats are known to build cholesterol levels in your blood, while unsaturated fats are known to lower your cholesterol levels and subsequently reduce your risk of heart disease. 
Research also established the guideline that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats is the ideal way to reduce cardiovascular risk.
This is where margarine scores brownie points and health experts eagerly promoted it as a heart healthy alternative, as it is made from unsaturated vegetable oils. While this is partly true, if we dig a little deeper, we’ll come up with something more than that.
As I already mentioned, margarine is produced by partially hydrogenating vegetable oils to increase its shelf life and prevent rancidity. However, this man made process creates trans fats which are the worst of all kind of fats.
You are already consuming a lot of trans fats, if you follow a typical Western Diet, that is eating stuff that is cooked by partially hydrogenated oils, most ready made fried and baked goods, (that includes your favorite cookies, doughnuts, cakes and pastries)
Scientists, apparently, found margarine as an alternative for baking and cooking, as studies began to reveal increased risk of heart disease due to consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol.
However, the trans fats in vegetable oils have proven to be worse than that. Research reveals that their impact on reducing HDL levels, (good cholesterol) and raising LDL levels (bad cholesterol) were much higher than compared to saturated fat, which doubled the chances of cardiovascular risk.
Another research found even stronger risk association with coronary heart disease among women who had a stable consumption of margarine for a period of 10 years.
This Leads To An Interesting Insight
No doubt, the margarine manufacturers have been conning us all this while, but don’t let yourself get carried away here.
Both these foods have their pros and cons to an extent. While margarine is cholesterol free, butter isn’t.
Studies, so far have been indicating that too much dietary intake of saturated fat can raise your cholesterol levels. Having said that, health experts also acknowledge that natural saturated fats found in animal fats have important role to play for building a healthy nervous system, hormone and Vitamin D production.
This makes me believe that low to moderate intake of saturated fats isn’t really harmful unless you are being a couch potato.
On the contrary, trans fats, mostly found in processed foods, is double trouble as it not only raises your ldl levels (bad cholesterol), but reduces your hdl levels (good cholesterol), thus doubling your risk of heart disease.
What Should Be Your Health Pick?
Studying both sides of the coin, one can come to the conclusion that too much dietary intake of either kind of fat; whether natural or artificial can put your health at risk.
While butter is synthetic trans fats free, margarine is cholesterol free. But wait, the story isn’t over yet.
Recent research revealed that the long established cause of heart disease due to high cholesterol levels is a myth. Scientists reveal discrepancies in previous studies and questions the harmful effects of saturated fats. Another study suggests no such correlation at all.
Phew! So What Shall You Go For Finally?
Well, according to this extensive research, it seems like replenishing your diet with the good fats, i.e. PUFA and the MUFA, should be a wise option, meaning vegetable oils would be a safer bet cooking wise.
Unfortunately, vegetable oils are not spared either. PUFAs and MUFAs turn into trans fats when heated and get oxidized, thus making themselves rancid again.
However, PUFAs oxidize more easily than MUFAs, thus making olive oil a safer option as it contains monounsaturated fats that are fairly resistant to heat. Even better are virgin olive oil or extra virgin oil as they contain anti-oxidants that resist oxidation.
Now consider this, butter and coconut oil are both saturated fats, hence, they too are much healthier cooking options than polyunsaturated oils like corn, canola and sunflower oil.
All that means that margarine is completely out of the picture as they are the products of the so called vegetable oils and it has nothing better to offer than synthetic trans fats.
Moreover, recent studies reveal the benefits of saturated fats like butter which is a natural source of vitamin K2, a rare vitamin consumed in the modern diet and known for reducing cardiovascular risk and protecting bone health. Besides, butter contains lauric acid that helps treat fungal infections.
The fact that recent studies exhibit no correlation between saturated fats and cardiovascular risk, helps further, to shed the demonic mask off and ranks butter higher on the health chart.
Therefore, reverting to the original point of discussion, the butter vs margarine war, the former clearly reigns supreme. Kudos to our first love!
The Bottom Line
Ok, I’ll try to contain my excitement here, and conclude on a point that makes this post a worthy read.
This means, you can enjoy your butterly delicacies guilt free as long as you’re counting your calorie intake, so as to keep a watch on your waist line.
And those of you, who still don’t wish to completely abandon margarine, though I’d strongly suggest otherwise, do check the nutrition label of any margarine product (stick or tub) to check the trans fat content. In the States, the FDA has stated if a food contains less than 0.5 gm of trans fat, it can be labeled trans fat free. So, keep that factor in mind.
As for me and I know you’ll agree, butter spread is more appetizing as it leaves you well sated. You can choose to go even healthier by opting for grass fed butter.
While these studies have been there for years, people still didn’t care enough. I hope this post has made the point finally. It’s as simple as it gets. You would any day prefer to go for natural dairy food rather than highly processed junk right?
A little awareness and a shift of preferences on your dietary intake could go a long way to become a healthier you. So, go ahead and spread the good word.
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