Butter has been a staple food for centuries. But not long ago we were told to lower our intake of saturated fats by replacing butter, which is high in saturated fats with margarine. This information has recently been challenged with new studies showing that saturated fat isn’t as bad as once thought, it’s even healthy in moderation. Now there is more confusion than even on what to choose, butter or margarine?
Butter is made by churning the fatty part of cows milk. It’s natural with no additives, however it is higher in saturated fats when compared to margarine. This is why it was believed that margarine was a healthier alternative, however in recent studies this has been found not to be the case. The fat which is in both margarine and butter proven to be unhealthy is trans fats. How the margarine is manufactured will determine how much trans fat it contains.
Margarine is highly processed using vegetable oils, emulsifiers, colourings and other additives. Margarine isn’t naturally yellow like butter, it’s actually more of a grey colour. Margarine can also contain higher or lower levels of trans fats compared to butter. This depends on how the margarine is processed to convert the liquid oils into a solid.
Due to vegetable oils being liquid at room temperature there are a couple of methods to make it solid. Some countries use hydrogenation which has the side effect of producing high levels of trans fats. Other countries do not use this method, instead esterification is used. This is when the oils are combined with other ingredients such as water, salt or milk to make a smooth consistency. Emulsifiers such as lecithin is used so the water and oil will mix. Esterification results in a margarine which is virtually free from trans fats.
The difference between the trans fats in butter and the trans fats in margarine is one being natural and the latter is synthetic. However according to Nutrition Australia both pose the same health problems. Although one benefit margarine offers is some brands fortified with plant sterols have been shown to lower blood cholesterol.
Both butter and margarine have their own pros and cons. In the end it may come down to the processing method used in your country and the quality of the product. Reading the label and being aware of the manufacturers processes is a good start to making the best decision for your health. Also look at the amount of trans fats each product contains and choose the one with the lowest amounts.