Margarine vs Butter

Margarine vs butter: Which is healthier?

Taking a close look at butter and margarine, which is more likely to elevate our physical risk for disease?


Butter has a rich history dating back at least 4,000 years, cherished for it’s many benefits including boosting immunity and supplying nourishment in times of need (Douma, 2008).

How is it made?
Butter is made from the churning of fresh or fermented cream or milk to separate the butterfat from the buttermilk, this process takes a few days, some butters then have salt added (Murray, Pizzorno & Pizzorno, 2005).

Nutrient value
As a general rule butter will contain 66% SFA, mainly myristic (C14:0) and palmitic (C16:0) acids; 30% MUFA, oleic acid (C18:1 cis-9) which is the main MUFA found in olive oil and vaccenic acid a naturally occurring animal trans fat (C18:1 trans-11); 3% PUFA, -linolenic acid (C18:3 cis-9, cis-12, cis-15) and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) as an isomer called rumenic acid which is also a naturally occurring trans fat (C18:2 cis-9, trans-11); 1% free sterols such as cholesterol and squalene and trace amounts of free fatty acids such as butyric acid (Elgersma, Tamminga & Ellen, 2006).

The quality of butter depends on whether the butter has been made from organic grass fed, non-organic grass fed or grass and grain fed cows milk. Feed quality will effect the ratio of SFA to PUFA as well as the type of PUFA, with CLA and omega 3 PUFA being more predominant in grass fed animals (Elgersma, Tamminga & Ellen, 2006).

There are five systems of feeding and supplementation in New Zealand for non-organic dairy farming, with system 1 being totally grass fed with no supplementation and system 5 being year round supplementation. More farms are feeding with increasing supplementation of grains, in particular palm kernel extract to improve yield to meet demand. It is also important to be aware of the fact that these farmers utilise a large amount of fertiliser as farmers aim to sustain pasture (Greig, 2012).  Animals are also given antibiotics, and drenched twice yearly and residues are found in the milk, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority monitors this and ensures that the levels remain low enough to not be harmful (Ministry of Primary Industries, 2014).

Butter contains naturally occurring fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, as well as vitamins B2, B9, B12, minerals zinc, calcium, magnesium, selenium, iodine and the antioxidant glutathione; these levels are dependent on the time of year, quality of grass or other foods consumed (Elgersma, Tamminga & Ellen, 2006; Murray, Pizzorno & Pizzorno, 2005; Haug, Høstmark & Harstad, 2007).


Margarine was first produced in the early 1800’s in France as a cheaper alternative to butter, initially made using animal fat and milk and had a similar fat composition as butter, margarine is now predominantly comprised of blends of vegetable oils (IMACE, 2014).

How is it made?
There are many varieties of margarines available, yet all are water and oil emulsions, made by suspending water in oil and stabilised using solid fat. Vegetable oils in margarine are made from seeds such as rapeseed (canola oil) soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower and have to extracted, usually by heating, crushing and washing with a chemical solvent such as hexane. Hexane has been classified as a toxic air pollutant by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and is hazardous for those working with it, when consumed as part of vegetable oils or margarine it is thought to be readily broken down by the liver and excreted into the urine, however over consumption may cause neurological damage (Registry & Health, 2013). The oil and seed residue is separated and steam cleaned to remove the solvent. The remaining crude oil contains proteinaceous material, free fatty acids, phosphatides, and other impurities and undergoes degumming, where it is mixed with water and put through centrifugation to separate the gum; caustic refining, where the oil is mixed with an aqueous alkali solution creating a soapstock that catches the proteinaceous material, removes colour and precipitates gums, and is put through centrifugation again to separate the soapstock from the oil after which it is washed again. The oil is then bleached to remove colour oxidation products, phosphatides, soaps, and trace metals, bleaching also improves flavour; finally the oil is deodorized by injecting steam through to remove odours, the crude oil is usually unpalatable. Many of the byproducts created in the creation of vegetable oils such as the cake meal and soapstock are used in animal feed (Chappell, 1998; Eyres, 2014).

Margarine is processed in five phases, these are emulsification, where the oil and water are blended.

Firstly the oil is fully or partially hydrogenated to make it solid, unless a solid fat like palm oil is being added. Palm oil is particularly used as it has a high melting point (contains 51% SF mostly palmitic acid C:16), is stable and blends well, influencing other oils to form a smoother substance. Hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fats), oils that have a H- molecule added to make them which makes them more saturated are also used in the same way as palm oil, but with better results. The mixture is then combined with some water and emulsified with lecithin, vitamins, colouring agents, pasteurisation follows, after which the margarine is cooled and worked before being rested and finally packaged (IMACE, 2014; Miskandar et al, 2005; Eyres, 2014).

Nutrient value
Depending on the margarine, how it was processed and what oils where used, greatly determines the type of fats present, generally margarines will contain more PUFA, especially omega 6, as most vegetable oils such as
sunflower are particularly high containing over 50% PUFA. Olive oil and canola oil being the exception as these are higher in MUFA. Margarines still contain a percentage of trans fats, which are proven to cause disease and if these are less than 2% it is not required to be shown on the label. The Heart Foundation tick is only displayed on margarines that have less than 1% trans fats (Heart Foundation, 2014), these spreads will most likely be using palm oil instead and therefore have some SF in the form of palmitic acid (Stoker,2013; Miskandar et al, 2005).

Any other nutrients such as omega 3, polyphenols, antioxidants or vitamin A will have been added to the margarine in synthetic form, as most of the naturally occurring nutrients are lost in the processing. As most oils
are high in PUFA these are also prone to oxidation (Egert et al, 2012, Murry et al., 2005).

The quality of the margarine is determined by the quality of the ingredients. Margarine in New Zealand is made from imported vegetable oil, this oils arrives in a crude form and is cleansed and free fatty acids removed before use (Eyres, 2005). These oils are produced from seeds grown using pesticides, and can contain contaminants, however these are closely monitored by Ministry of Primary Industries.

Butter and margarine are used for the same purposes, such as a condiment, or spread, in baking and cooking, their caloric intake is similar, there is as much fat in margarine as there is in butter and the main reason for
choosing margarine over butter has been for cardiovascular health, and to lower risk for obesity and diabetes. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in New Zealand, over 5% of New Zealanders have
diabetes and the rate of obesity has increased by 26% in the last 5 years. (Ministry of Health, 2012). It is widely believed that SF, trans fat and cholesterol play a role in the development of CVD and therefore it is not seen as healthy to consume butter or other animal fats, but recent research shows that this is not the case and that the ratio of essential PUFA and inflammation, as well as the size of the low density lipoprotein (LDL), are more
significant (Sinatra et al, 2012, Siri-Tarino, 2010, St-Pierre et al, 2005).

Looking at butter we find many health benefits, the SF’s found in butter are, palmitic acid, which is used by the body to make surfactant, a substance used in the lungs keep them from collapsing (Craft, 2011) and myristic
acid, known to raise both high density lipoproteins (HDL) and LDL in the blood. Oleic acid, the MUFA found in butter is known to protect HDL from oxidation and to increase HDL and -linolenic acid, an omega-3 PUFA especially high in grass fed cows milk, has a protective effect on cardiovascular health due to it being a strong anti-inflammatory, a blood thinner and hypotensive. CLA, has anticarcenogenic and antiatherogenic properties, butyric acid is also thought to prevent cancer and glutathione has strong antioxidant properties and is involved
in the detoxification pathways in the liver. The vitamins and minerals in butter are essential to health, have antioxidant properties and are involved in many metabolic pathways within the body, iodine in butter for example helps prevent thyroid disease (Haug et al., 2007; Elgersma et al., 2006; Murray et al., 2005; Sinatra et al, 2012).

Margarine contains very little SF which is why it was seen as a healthier alternative to butter in the past, as the research now shows that SF is not the responsible for CVD (Ravnskov , 2014; Siri-Tarino, 2010; Sinatra et al,
2012), there seems little benefit to eating this highly processed food. The health effects of margarine depend on the type and amount of oils contained within, most will have a high omega-6 PUFA profile, which has an
inflammatory effect on the body, promotes blood clotting and is also thought to enhance the allergic response leading to atopic diseases (Dunder et al, 2001). In a study involving 458 men that had recently had a cardiac
event who where told to increase their consumption of dietary linoleic acid in place of saturated fats also increased their mortality rate from cardiovascular disease (Ravnskov, 2014) . Some margarines such as soybean,
rapeseed (canola), and flaxseed contain a beneficial oil, -linolenic acid, an omega-3 PUFA, which as we have shown has anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties, and oleic acid, a MUFA which increase HDL cholesterol. Oils from olives and avocado are high in oleic acid, olives contain other anti-oxidants and has been shown to have a protective effect on the brain (Samieri, 2011), avocados are also rich in nutrients such as vitamin A, C, E, K, B9, and phytosterols. The benefits of these oils are more readily available in their natural state and therefore no need to consume margarine to access these (Murray et al., 2005). Most margarines still contain a small percentage of hydrogenated fats or trans fats and these fats are known to cause heart disease (Oomen et al., 2001).


It seems to me that margarine is a highly processed food, containing unnatural vegetable oils along with emulsifiers, colorants and various artificial ingredients, whereas butter is made almost the same
way it has been for centuries and contains many naturally occurring beneficial nutrients, especially if the milk and cream come from grass fed organically farmed cows. It makes sense from a physical point of health to use butter instead of margarine and I would argue that it also makes sense from an emotional point of health as there is much to be said for the creamy goodness of real organic butter and the pleasure to be had from the taste.


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