Butter versus Margarine: and the winner is……….?

The debate surrounding whether butter or margarine is better has been ongoing, with the scales tipping in favour of one, and sometimes neither, over the decades. Clearly, butter comes from cows and is therefore considered a more natural product. It has also been produced for thousands of years. Butter tastes so darn good; dripping off hot crumpets on a Winter’s morning or smothered on hot cross buns at Easter time can be a real treat. Margarine doesn’t quite stack up on the ‘treat’ list but it has less ‘unhealthy fats’ and can sometimes promote heart health.

However, being swept along in the new ‘natural and clean eating movement’ means reducing processed foods. Does this outlaw margarine – clearly a processed food?

Margarine was invented in the 1870s when Emperor Napoleon III in France put forth the challenge to create an alternative to butter for soldiers. It was popularised in the 1970s and 80s due to its high levels of vegetable based oils but suffered major blows during the 1990s due to the discovery of the detrimental impact of trans fats which were present in high levels in traditional margarines at the time. Trans fatty acids cause elevated LDL cholesterol levels in the body and this has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses.

Since the 1990s, trans fats were almost entirely removed from margarines In Australia, and this, together with a release of several ‘heart friendly’ margarine spread mixes (using plant sterols to lower cholesterol or monounsaturated oils like olive oil), along with the Heart Foundation’s tick program, put margarine back on the shopping list. According to the National Health Foundation Australia, swapping from butter to margarine is one way to reduce saturated fat in the diet and add healthier unsaturated fats, long considered more desirable for heart health. Research has shown that plant sterols reduce the body’s ability to absorb cholesterol and can lower cholesterol by 10%. Consuming 2-3g of plant sterols daily has been recommended as beneficial to lowering cholesterol levels. So this means eating 1-1.5 tablespoons margarine (25g) with plant based sterol every day.

All considered however, the natural versus processed argument continues to feed the debate.

Nutritionally, butter is around 50% saturated fat which is an unhealthy fat that is known to raise cholesterol levels.  Margarine spreads in the Australian marketplace that have the Heart Foundation Tick  contain approximately 28% saturated fat, less than 1% trans fat (most only 0.1-0.2%) and are a good source of healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that can improve cholesterol levels and promote the healthier HDL cholesterol. So what about the processing side of things? Hydrogenation is a chemical process where oils, liquid at room temperature, are converted into solid or semi-solid fats. A side effect of this is the production of trans fats. In Australia, polyunsaturated oils on the supermarket shelf contain negligible trans fats as they have not undergone hydrogenation, however, if traveling or importing products that contain margarine from international markets, you will need to check whether they contain trans fatty acids (partially hydrogenated oils) as these may not be banned at the country of source. The process of esterification is now used in margarines in Australia. This is where the vegetable based oils are combined with other ingredients such as milk, water and salt to develop a smooth consistency for spreading. Lecithin (found in egg yolk) is added for helping to mix water with oil. This makes it possible to develop margarines that are lower in saturated fats and virtually free of trans fats.

In an analysis by Choice, the nutritional pros and cons of different types of margarine per 100g amounts showed:

  1. Canola spreads: Canola oil is rich in monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids both of which are consider heart health friendly. There is also no evidence to support that canola is toxic, contrary to some claims.
  1. Olive oil spreads: Olive oil is the dominant fat in the Mediterranean diet, considered one of the most health diets of the world. This is a great source of monounsaturated fat however, margarines based on olive oil can be expensive and contain low levels of olive oil within them.
  1. Polyunsaturated spreads: Made from sunflower, flaxseed or soybean oils that are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fats, these are a popular supermarket item.
  1. Cholesterol-lowering spreads: Although not a substitute for cholesterol-lowering medication, as stated earlier, a 25g serve daily will make a difference to your LDL cholesterol levels. Always gain medical advice if you have high cholesterol and need a plan to overcome this with a combination of strategies.
  1. Dairy blends/spreadable butter: These spreads are made from butter blended with vegetable oils, or from butterfat with some of the saturated fat removed. They have less saturated fat than traditional butter, with the added bonus that they come out of the fridge easier to spread and taste like butter. Compared to many other spreads, they still contain more saturated fat than most.


So how do butter and margarine stack up against each other nutritionally?

Butter Fat % Sat % Sodium mg
Butter, regular 81 53 776
Butter, light (fat reduced) 40 19 380
Spreadable butter 70 31 480
Spreadable light butter (fat reduced) 40 19 511
Canola regular 65 16 350
Canola light (fat reduced) 46 11 330
Meadow Lea regular 70 18 790
Meadow Lea salt-reduced 70 19 380
Meadow Lea (fat reduced) 49 12 340

When it comes to weight loss, at the end of the day, butter and margarine can make a considerable contribution to total energy intake. Perhaps eliminating both of these options and choosing alternatives to these spreads can contribute to better health. Avoiding spreads on bread sticks, foccacias, croissants, scones, crackers, fruit buns and other biscuits or bread items that already contain oils within them is a wise solution. At first, vegemite on toast without butter or margarine will not be as enjoyable, I know. But surprisingly, our taste can adapt and you will start to prefer the cleaner taste of spread-free toast. If that seems out of bounds for you, other alternatives to making dry toast, salad sandwiches or crackers tastier include:

Alternative Spreads

Spread Sat Fat per 100g Total fat per 100g
Avocado 5 22
Hummus 2 17
Olive oil 15 100
Ricotta, original 7 9
Ricotta, reduced fat 4 5
Peanut butter, regular 11 52
Peanut butter, light (Kraft) 8 38
Cottage cheese 4 6
Cream cheese, regular 18 26
Cream cheese, light 10 14

So, there really is no winner here. Both are high in energy so will potentially contribute to weight gain and if there’s one food that you can readily drop without having too much impact on your overall food choices it’s these spreads. Try these even healthier options to spread on your toast and see how you go.


Sweet potato spread:

Cut the sweet potato lengthways in half (skin on), place in oven and bake for 45 mins at 180 degrees, Allow to cool

The sweet potato should be soft enough inside the skin to spread onto your toast or bread. Sprinkle with mixed herbs (eg Tuscan herb mix) for a tasty finish. This will last about 4 days in the fridge. You can opt to mash the sweet potato (discard skin) and freeze portions ready for use using an ice-block tray. This recipe also works for pumpkin as well.


Bean spread:

Open a can of cannoli beans or mixed beans. Heat in the microwave for 40 seconds if desired. Place into a blender or your nutribullet and blend until a smooth paste-like texture. Spread on your bread, sqeeze with a little lemon juice for that added zing and sprinkle with pepper or your favourite herb/spice combination. You can add natural yogurt or ricotta for a smoother texture if desired.


Avocado, lemon and pepper spread

Mashing a ripe avocado with lemon, low fat natural yogurt and a shake of black pepper is unbeatable on toast.

Note that these alternatives not only reduce your saturated fat and overall energy intake, but they can also dramatically reduce your salt intake – a bonus!!


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