The World's Healthiest Foods

What are the pros and cons of butter vs margarine?

It's always tempting to quote Dr. Joan Dye Gussow, Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emeritus at Teacher's College, Columbia University, in New York City when responding to questions about butter versus margarine. Many years ago, Dr. Gussow remarked, "I trust cows more than chemists." Cows, of course, are the source of whole milk, which provides the cream, which can be agitated to form the semisolid known as butter. As converted cream, butter is, of course, almost pure fat, and a very high percentage of it is saturated. However, contrary to popular opinion, all saturated fat is not bad for us, particularly short chain and medium chain saturated fat. It turns out that butter has suprising amounts of both - on the short chain side, it has butyric acid, and on the medium chain side, it has myristic acid. Both of these saturated fatty acids have proven health benefits and are valuable additions to a meal. The long chain saturated fatty acids, stearic acid and palmitic acid, are also found in butter in high amounts, and excessive intake of these long chain saturated fats is definitely problematic. As an animal fat, butter has cholesterol - but the amount here is 10-15 milligrams per pat of butter, and virtually all persons could incorporate 2 or 3 times that amount in their meal plan on a daily basis. Butter provides vitamin A and vitamin E along with its short chain fatty acids.

The butter summary: good marks for butyric acid, myristic acid, vitamin A and vitamin E. With butter, however, there is one large precaution: you can only trust the cow if you can trust the cow's environment and diet. Toxins in the cow's food supply and/or poor lifestyle and health problems for the cow mean contaminated milk and contaminated butter. Organic is the way to go here to avoid these documented risks!

As Dr. Gussow pointed out, margarine was the invention of a French chemist in 1869, when fats and oils were scare in Western Europe and petroleum had yet to evolve. Although it began as an extract from animal fat, margarine today is exclusively a plant oil product, and almost universally - although there are some exceptions - involves the bubbling of hydrogen into the plant oil to harden it and extend its shelf life. This process is called hydrogenation, and it produces a partially hydrogenated fat. This partially hydrogenated fat could contain one or more of many different plant oils, including oils from soy, corn, cottonseed, and safflower. Hydrogenated oils contain increased amounts of trans fats, and trans fats have been clearly linked to the development of chronic disease, including heart disease. Hydrogenation also increases the degree of saturation in the fat. While margarine has much less saturated fat than butter, it does not have the healthy saturated fats (butyric acid and myristic acid), that butter does. It may have vitamins A and E like butter, but it also may not. Margarine-making companies typically use plant oils that have been stripped of most nutrients, and the nutritional value of the final product usually depends on what the chemists decided to do. So does the extent of additives put into the margarine - especially preservatives and artificial colors. Of course, since it's derived from plant oils, margarine has no cholesterol.

The margarine summary: being plant-derived would usually be a nutritional plus, but in this case, the original plant nutrients may not appear in the margarine. (And in addition, the quality of the plant used to provide the oil for the margarine matters greatly! As with butter, the way to go here is organic.) Margarine's lesser amount of saturated fat is good, but its hydrogenated oils are not. (If selecting margarine, the softer tub variety is less saturated than the harder stick variety.)

From a whole foods perspective, butter is much closer to being a whole food than margarine, more closely tied to the earth's ecology, and much less arbitrarily composed from a nutritional standpoint. These are good reasons for choosing it. Between a very high quality, organic, exception-to-the-rule margarine (with no hydrogenated oil and retention of original plant oil nutrients) and organic butter, it's a much closer match, and there's room for eater discretion here.