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Butter or Margarine: Which is Healthier?

Updated on June 23, 2011

The question of whether it is healthier to eat butter or margarine is a confusing one. One day research comes out proving that butter is a healthier choice, the next day another set of research proves that margarine is healthier. Professional tennis matches cause less whiplash!

Saturated Fat Vs. Trans Fat

The controversy is caused mainly by disagreement among experts about the health effects of several different types of fats, as well as cholesterol. The number of calories and the amount of total fat in butter and margarine is virtually the same.

Butter is made from cream. It is high in saturated fat, a type of naturally occurring fat found in most animal and some plant foods. Butter also has relatively high levels of cholesterol. High consumption of saturated fats is associated with higher levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol and certain conditions, including heart disease.

Margarine is made primarily from vegetable oils that have been hydrogenized to make them solid. Margarine contains little or no cholesterol, but high levels of a type of unsaturated fat called trans fat. Small amounts of trans fats occur in some natural products (including butter) but in a different form than the trans fats produced by the process of hydrogenation.

In general, unsaturated fats, which are also found in liquid oils such as olive oil, are believed to be healthier than saturated fats. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that trans fats are actually worse for the body than saturated fats.

In 2007, a large study found that women with high levels of trans fats in their bodies had three times the risk of developing heart disease than women with low levels. Other studies have connected high trans fat consumption with increased risk of a number of different types of cancer, including breast cancer, and a number of other health conditions, including stroke, gallstones, and type 2 diabetes. Trans fats are also associated with reduced immune system functioning and lower breastmilk quality in breastfeeding mothers.

Finally, although margarine, unlike butter, contains no cholesterol, trans fats are known to raise levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol, just like saturated fats. Unlike saturated fats, trans fats also appear to actually lower levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol.

Photo by jessicafm
Photo by jessicafm

The Benefits of Butter

If you like margarine, you can reduce the amount of trans fats by purchasing soft margarines. Margarine that comes in tub, rather than stick, form is less hydrogenated and contains lower levels of trans fats. Some tub margarines contain no trans fats at all. Unfortunately, soft margarine is not as good for cooking as stick margarine, so I suggest substituting olive oil or for stick margarine when possible and butter when not.

Despite its saturated fat and cholesterol levels, butter actually has a number of significant nutritional advantages over margarine.

  • Butter is one of the best natural sources of vitamins A, D, and E. Vitamin A is important for healthy immune system function. Vitamins A and D both aid calcium absorption and help build strong bones and teeth and prevent osteoporosis. Vitamin E is an important anti-oxidant.
  • As mentioned above, butter contains a naturally occurring trans fat called Conjugated Lineolic Acid (CLA) that, unlike its synthetic relatives, appears to offer many health benefits, including lower levels of obesity and higher bone density.
  • Butter is a good source of iodine, which is necessary for the proper function of the thyroid gland, and selenium, another important anti-oxidant.
  • Butter contains a type of fatty acid called glycospingolipids, which are important to proper digestive tract function, especially in young children.

Aside from its high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, the primary disadvantage of butter is that it concentrates hormones and pesticide residues consumed by the cow at levels 2-5 times the level found in liquid olive and vegetable oils. (Margarine also concentrates pesticide levels, but does not contain growth hormones.)

However, a healthier alternative is organic butter, preferably from cows that have been exclusively grass-fed. Studies have shown that dairy products from grass-fed cows are higher in many of the beneficial nutrients mentioned above than conventionally raised cows, and lower in saturated fat and cholesterol! Because grassfed butter is lower in saturated fat than conventionally raised butter, it is also softer and easier to spread. For more information about the health benefits of grassfed dairy products, and a directory of farms, please visit Eat Wild.

It is especially important to provide toddlers and young children with full fat, organic butter, because children are more susceptible to the harmful effects of trans fats and pesticide residues, yet fat (including saturated fat!) is very important to proper brain and body development in early childhood.

For adults, both margarine and butter have benefits and problems. However, I believe the nutrient-dense qualities of butter, especially grassfed butter, outweigh the disadvantages of higher saturated fat and cholesterol levels.


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    • profile image

      cj 5 years ago

      this is good

    • Ingenira profile image

      Ingenira 5 years ago

      Good to know. Great info.

    • profile image

      Conspiracy Buster 6 years ago

      American Heart Association recommends that you use liquid or tub margarines that are 0g trans fat. Am I supposed to believe that all that science and all those specialists on heart health are wrong because you people are all paranoid about "man-made" foods?? Let me guess... The AHA is getting paid off by the margarine companies... Early humans ate "all natural" ... their life expectancy was 25...

    • Il_Padrino profile image

      Il_Padrino 6 years ago

      Come to Poland. Taste delicious natural food. Natural milk, butter. Great thing!

    • onegoodwoman profile image

      onegoodwoman 7 years ago from A small southern town

      I vote for "real" unsalted butter. It is great in baking. And lets face facts, it has to taste good for us to eat it.

      While the benefits of either can be debated.......flies do not flock to an open container of margarine! That alone should tell us something.

    • cathylynn99 profile image

      cathylynn99 7 years ago from northeastern US

      great article. you get it ALL right. I use soft margarine rarely, butter even less, usually olive or canola oil. I'm a science-based health nut, though.

      There is no growth hormone in any milk or butter. It's not secreted in milk.

    • Medical Writer profile image

      Medical Writer 7 years ago from Great Britain

      Butter tastes better. Go for non-salted butter, you'll be fine.

    • gesuenderleben profile image

      gesuenderleben 7 years ago

      Margarine, of course ;-) And it tastes WAY better!

    • profile image

      Yeah Butter 7 years ago

      Nature is just as capable of making poisons as man. Look at Cone Snail Toxins

    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander 7 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      Good hub. I love butter. It makes everything taste better. Well, almost everything.


    • profile image

      SamAntone 7 years ago

      Well written and nice research.

      It's nice to hear something good about butter, as I can eat tons of it (cold) on fresh rolls. I pushed butter as well, and tub margarine, on my latest hub.

    • GojiJuiceGoodness profile image

      GojiJuiceGoodness 8 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      Personally, I think butter is better. It's still in it's natural form and therefore is easier for your body to digest. And then, there are just natural health benefits compared to anything synthetic...

    • HealthyHanna profile image

      HealthyHanna 8 years ago from Utah

      I use to use butter all the time. Then, because I seemed to have a craving for fat, I have switched to spray margarine. It has helped cut down the amount of fat I ingest, but I have never felt it is very good for you. I think I will switch back to butter, and see if I can't control my self.

    • nora2biz profile image

      nora2biz 8 years ago from Bratislava

      I have to comment, because lately, by coincident, I came across organic extra virgin coconut oil. Many people are starting using coconut oil for cooking again. I thing, in late 70s , when the witch hunt on coconut oil and other tropical oils started and the "benefits" of soy came forward the whole thing about fats and cholesterol became the very issue, we started questioning all fat sources. But , as in many sources we can read, that actually cocnut oil is quite good for your body.

      The point is: the oils( olive, canola, coconut...) are healthier then butter or margarine. Definitlly, hydrogenizied fat is unhealthy.

      Thanks for listening. Vey nice article.

    • Melanie Hanni profile image

      Melanie Hanni 8 years ago from Idaho

      Excellent hub - my naturpath gives this advice - look at the original source of the product - the body knows what to do and how to eliminate a natural substance - the problem comes when we use synthetic man-made substances - foreign to the body - the body is confused at how to eliminate such toxins - examples he gave real whipping cream verses cool whip - butter verses margarine - even lard verses shortening - the natural substances are much better for us when consumed sparingly than the synthetic stuff

    • yelkaim profile image

      yelkaim 8 years ago

      I have to agree with you kerryg that butter is definitely better than margarine. After all, butter is natural, margarine is man-made poison. Good for you for helping to spread this message.

      Keep up the great work!

    • beadams profile image

      beadams 8 years ago from St. Paul

      this is good.

      visit my hubs.

    • HWP profile image

      HWP 8 years ago from my own world

      I have always eaten butter, and personally I can't stand margarine, I think it tastes horrid! While you do need to be careful of your saturated fat intake I strongly believe that the more natural you can keep your food the better it is for you, trans fats scare the hell out of me and I avoid them at all costs - butter wins hands down for me every time. Great hub - it's good to see someone on the side of "real" food :-)

    • J. Kumm profile image

      J. Kumm 8 years ago from Washington

      This is a great hub on...butter vs. margarine. I always read the label before I even consider buying margarine to look for trans fat levels and other ingredients. Typically I choose butter, but if I do buy margarine it is usually pick Smart Balance brands.