Which One Do You Choose: Butter or Margarine?

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Blog Post - Which One Do You Choose: Butter or Margarine

There is a serious debate about butter versus margarine. In fact there are hundreds of thousands of sites if not millions bashing one over the other claiming animal fats will kill you and plant fats will save you. I personally have had both and like both, depending on what I’m eating or cooking. So, out of curiosity, I decided to do a little poking around because I wanted to understand more about the debate and see if one really was that much worse than the other. To start, let’s go back a few hundred years.

How Was Margarine Created?

Now, there’s this weird story around about how margarine killed a bunch of turkeys and was then unleashed on unsuspecting consumers who don’t know that it’s just one “step” away from making plastic. Let’s just step back from that crazy train and go back in time. The discovery of margaric acid in the early 1800’s by a French chemist, Michel Eugène Chevreul was a precursor to the creation of margarine. The acid was found to be a combination of natural fatty acids. Another French chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriè came up with a butter alternative in the 1860’s called oleomargarine because the Emperor of France something that could be used by the military and the masses, not turkeys :). Oleomargarine was made from both animal (primarily beef) and plant fats.

Over the years the ingredients of oleomargarine changed as certain types of animal fats became scarce. With that shortage, it was made exclusively from plant fats and oils. In the 1950’s and 1960’s companies fought with each other trying to create the type of margarine that tasted more like butter. That market demand caused manufacturers to create margarine from dairy products as well as plant products. Over the last three decades, in an effort to cater to the more health-minded public, most if not all companies have done away with the use of “partially hydrogenated oils,” have fortified margarine with essential vitamins and minerals and have turned to more natural fats such as olive and sunflower oils to create healthier products.

Why Does Margarine Have a Bad Reputation?

According to some, margarine has a bad rep because, well, it’s bad. But let’s take another look. Margarine is a semi-solid mixture of refined plant oils and fats. The refinement is called hydrogenation, which means that an element of a substance is treated with hydrogen. During this process, trans fats may be produced. Trans fats used to be very prominent in a variety of foods because it does help to extend shelf life. However, research showed that trans fats  raised LDL cholesterol and lowered HDL cholesterol, increasing the risk or coronary heart disease. Some companies decided to move away from that practice and created margarine that were based on omega-3 fats from nuts and seeds.

There are additives in margarine and that’s probably the source of a lot of the bad feelings. When people think of additives, they may think of artificial flavors and coloring. In some margarine, that may be the case. One additive is annatto, which is a seed that has a nutty flavor and a yellow to deep orange color, depending on how much is used. Another additive that may be a source of controversy is palm oil. Palm oil has been used for centuries as a food additive. It’s naturally trans-fat free and loaded with vitamins A and E and even decreases the symptoms of malaria…in it’s natural form. The question is if the palm oil is the unrefined, natural form or is it the refined, more readily available but nutritionally compromised version? Some products are required to clearly label products so that people can make more informed decisions.

What About Butter?

Butter is made by churning fresh or fermented milk from cows, goats, sheep, buffalo even yaks. Unlike margarine, it’s solid in the fridge and softens at room temperature. Because animal fats may contain dangerous bacteria, it’s pasteurized to kill those microbes. Being more natural, butter has a limited shelf life and needs to be refrigerated. Throughout the world butter is made from the milk fat of different animals, like cows and sheep, and is considered a staple in many cultures as it can be churned manually by anyone who knows how.

Butter is high in animal-based saturated fats and up until recently, doctors, dietitians and other medical professionals have been telling people to switch from animal fats to vegetable fats. However, according to a February 2013 analysis of research conducted in 1966-1973, patients who switched from animal fats to omega-6 polyunsaturated fats like those found in margarine (made from plant fats) had increased mortality from cardiovascular disease and coronary artery disease than those who had diets rich in saturated fatty acids. It is a well-known fact that some forms of omega-6 increase inflammation in the body, which is a major detriment to cardiovascular health.  Revisiting this 40 year old study is turning a lot of heads and raising a lot of questions about what people have been told, how products were made then versus now and will more than likely lead to other research studies along the same lines for years to come.

So, What Does This Mean to the Butter versus Margarine Discussion?

Bearing in mind the age of the study, it could be seen as a significant step towards validating those who in favor of more natural foods, i.e. butter, but it does give a little boost to some forms of margarine as well. Remember, margarine was originally made with animal and vegetable fats so we could see a resurgence of those types of butter alternatives. We could also see some kinds of vegetable oils removed from margarine altogether while others are used more frequently. Margarine made exclusively with vegetable fats is a preferred choice of vegans, vegetarians and people on special diets so it won’t go away.  Not to mention the fact that there are die-hard fans of either one who will refuse to switch regardless of health studies and long-term tests.

I know that some of you have already taken sides even before reading this post so you’ve got a ready answer designed to defend your side of the butter knife, so to speak. Others may not have made up their minds about anything. So for you, the readers of the spectrum, what do you think? Which will be more preferred: butter or margarine?