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Butter vs. Margarine

Updated on March 23, 2013

The Difference Between Butter and Margarine

It is possible that you prefer either butter or margarine based on flavor alone. Butter and margarine differ in nutrition as well, which is important to consider when choosing one or the other.

There are positive and negative aspects of both margarine and butter. When the facts are weighed surrounding their ingredients, performance, and nutritional makeup, which one comes out ahead?

Ingredients

In general, margarine contains natural plant and seed oils, whey or lactose, salt, water, vitamin A, vitamin D, color, flavor, and additives. The manufacturers, of course, have their own recipes. Some varieties may exclude the dairy and/or additives, for instance.

Butter is generally made using cream, milk solids, water, and salt. Non-homogenized milk separates, with the fattiest portion rising to the top and the low-fat liquid sinking to the bottom. The fattiest portion that has risen is the cream used to make butter. Butter in America is 80% to 81% butterfat and 19% to 20% milk solids and water. Butter in Europe has a higher butterfat percentage, ranging from 82% to 88%.

Source

Nutrition

There is bad news for both butter and margarine. Butter is high in saturated fat and cholesterol, whereas margarine is high in trans fat. Additionally, margarine contains nickel, which is used during a solidification process.

On the bright side, butter contains vitamins A, D, E, and K. Depending on the recipe, margarine may have vitamins A and D. Margarine contains a higher amount of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats than butter. Polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat are considered good fats because they assist in lowering cholesterol levels.

Used in Baking

Butter wins when it comes to baking. As a result of the lower fat content, margarine is said to cause cookies to be flat, whereas butter produces a fluffier, tenderer, flakier cookie. Keep in mind, unsalted butter is generally better than salted butter for baking; you do not want the salt in butter to affect the flavor of your baked good. After all, your recipe may even call for its own addition of salt.

Used in Cooking

It is important to consider the smoke point of oils used in cooking. The smoke point is the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and produce smoke. Once oil has broken down, it is believed to contain a significant amount of free radicals, increasing the risk of cancer.

The smoke point of butter is rather low, at 350 degrees F (177 degrees C). Unfortunately, there isn’t an accurate comparison for margarine because the type of oil that is used in margarine varies by brand. As a rule of thumb, assume the smoke point for margarine is about the same as that for butter.

Other Alternatives

Whipped butter contains approximately half the saturated fat and cholesterol as stick butter. Also with about half the saturated fat and cholesterol as regular butter are varieties made with olive oil or canola oil. Similarly, margarine is healthier as a spread than as a stick.

Options exist for vegans and people with dairy sensitivities. There are brands of margarine available that don’t contain whey, lactose, casein, or caseinate, which are dairy products.

Though they don’t fall into the discussion of butter vs. margarine, it is worthy to note that there are a number of oils with higher smoke points than butter that make excellent alternatives for cooking. Canola oil has a smoke point of 425 degrees F (218 degrees C). Safflower oil ranks among the highest smoke points, at 475 degrees F (246 degrees C).

Storage

Butter and margarine should both be stored in a refrigerator or freezer. Butter has a shelf life of 1-2 months in a refrigerator and 9 months in a freezer. Margarine has a longer shelf life, generally around 4-5 months in a refrigerator and up to 12 months in a freezer.

Conclusion… is Butter Better?

It’s up for debate which of these products is better. It depends on nutritional goals, how it will be used, and dietary restrictions. In the end, it may even be better to use oil. Which will you grab when you cook your next meal or bake your next batch of cookies?

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    • lemonkerdz profile image

      lemonkerdz 4 years ago from TRUJILLO, PERU

      Interesting hub.I had thought of doing one similar. in research i found Margarine is just one component away from being plastic.

      Which means your body does not know what to do with it.

      Butter on the other hand is a natural product and your body processes it well. Used in moderation Butter is best.

      KEEP AWAY from margarine!!

    • Audrey Baker profile image
      Author

      Audrey Baker 4 years ago from Arizona

      I agree, butter is more natural.

      A few years ago my sister told me she received an email stating margarine was one molecule away from being plastic, so I looked into it and found that to be false. This link appears to provide a really good explanation: http://www.cafemom.com/journals/read/1576058/Is_ma...

      I personally grab butter for my baked goods and canola oil for cooking... in general. Though margarine comes in handy for cookie frosting because I find it holds up a little longer at room temperature.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Butter definitely! lol! I hate margarine, it tastes like sandpaper to me, but it all depends on which brand it is, fascinating to see the difference though, nell

    • Audrey Baker profile image
      Author

      Audrey Baker 4 years ago from Arizona

      That's funny, Nell, and the first I've heard someone liken a food flavor to sandpaper! Good point, brands make a big difference for both butter and margarine. Thank you for the comment.

    • ienjoythis profile image

      Marissa D. Carnahan 4 years ago from Nevada

      This debate inevitably boils down to one point: If you are choosing between two items that are not the healthiest, choose the better tasting one - butter. Also, our bodies have been consuming butter and animal fat forever. We know what to do with it. Margarine is artificial and our bodies certainly do not know what to do with a lot of the chemicals we intake. Butter. Hands down.

    • Audrey Baker profile image
      Author

      Audrey Baker 4 years ago from Arizona

      Right, and it isn't very comforting to read "additives" as an ingredient on something you plan to consume.

    • ienjoythis profile image

      Marissa D. Carnahan 4 years ago from Nevada

      Agreed! Growing up with my Italian grandmother instilled the "butter is better" way of life in our kitchen haha

    • kitkat1141 profile image

      kitkat1141 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      My choice is butter. The ingredient list for margarine scares me. I think it is better to just try to use less of the real thing.

    • Audrey Baker profile image
      Author

      Audrey Baker 4 years ago from Arizona

      Yes, I would agree with that. It is best in moderation!

    • Nicole Rodgers profile image

      Nicole Rodgers 4 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      Coconut oil is a better, healthier fat than both of them.

    • Audrey Baker profile image
      Author

      Audrey Baker 4 years ago from Arizona

      I have used coconut oil in the past. I even used to for grilled cheese once, and it turned out surprisingly good! Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      Georgianna Lowery 4 years ago from Slaton, Texas USA

      This is interesting. As a rule, I don't like margarine, but I usually buy it first because of the cost of real butter. I have to have the real deal, however, if I'm making grilled cheese. Thank you for sharing!

    • Audrey Baker profile image
      Author

      Audrey Baker 4 years ago from Arizona

      That's a good point, butter is pricier. Also rather smart to not let anything compromise the flavor of grilled cheese!

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