The debate never seems to end in the fight of butter versus margarine. Headlines seem to be in a constant loop highlighting the latest study supporting or opposing butter and margarine. Internet hoaxes abound touting margarine as being “one step away from plastic” and that butter is king again. Opponents to butter talk at length of the latest heart disease statistics in support of margarine use. So what’s the real story?
Fats, whether margarine, butter or oils, all contain the same amount of fat, in a teaspoon serving, for example, and the same number of calories (1 tsp = 5 grams fat, 45 calories). The type of fat found in butter and margarine is where things differ. Butter is generally seen as a high saturated fat-containing food, where margarine, specifically non-hydrogenated margarine (e.g. Becel brand, among others), is very low in saturated fat.
If spreads are used frequently, margarine is seen as a heart healthier choice since high amounts of saturated fat in the diet contribute to a rise in LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, thereby increasing heart disease risk. Most heart disease experts generally discourage excessive intake of foods high in saturated fat (like butter) for this very reason. Foods high in saturated fat include butter, hard (stick) margarine, lard, donuts, french fries, pastries, chicken wings, ribs, heavily marbled meats, chicken skin, cookies, and high fat dairy products like cream, ice cream, and many cheeses.
No foods are good or bad, they can all be included using common sense and while keeping a balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish & poultry, nuts, and seeds in your diet. Try not to think of food as something that’s allowed or not allowed. I can’t begin to count the number of times a patient has “confided” that they cheated with food choices or asked me “what am I allowed to eat?”. I generally want to steer people away from this type of thinking since food and nutrition aren’t as black and white as this.
While the message of moderation is not as popular a sound-byte as “At last, the truth: Butter is GOOD for you – and margarine is chemical gunk” (actual headline from the UK’s Daily Mail), we as dietitians we want to promote balance and moderation. So, whether you prefer butter or margarine, there is no definitive answer. What’s important to note is moderation – that is, if any of these foods, including spreads, are consumed in moderation, they can be part of a heart healthy diet, whether it’s butter or margarine.