Butter or margarine.

Which one is in your fridge, and which is healthier?

The butter versus margarine debate isn’t new, nor has it concluded. I was asked the question during the Q&A session during one of my recent webinars and I thought I knew the answer but as with everything in nutrition, the science continually evolves.

Most of the controversy is around trans fatty acids (TFA). The UK Government has encouraged food companies to reduce levels of TFA in products but I don’t believe it is as yet banned.

What is margarine?

Earlier margarine’s contained TFA (as a result of hydrogenation where liquid fats are heated to turn them from liquid to a solid). Trans fats also help to increase the shelf-life of food.

TFA can be hard to find in a list of ingredients though – often appearing among the emulsifiers (items which help keep food together) in food. You may see them on the label as partially hydrogenated oil or shortening. You’ll generally find them in highly processed foods like cakes, biscuits, ice-cream[i].

It’s proposed that TFA increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stoke, liver dysfunction and Alzheimer’s. They raise LDL cholesterol (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol.

However, in the last couple of years the process of hydrogenation (heating at high temperatures) has been replaced with interesterification which doesn’t create TFA. Interesterification involves switching the fatty acids around in a fat product. Many margarine’s now consist of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and some margarine’s may also contain added colour and emulsifiers as part of the processing. Margarine is considered by some to be a processed food, compared to butter. Butter is made from churning cream, and is mostly saturated fat (the debate about saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease provides mixed results).

There is a thought that encouraging low fat spreads instead of dairy (butter) may encourage people towards the more processed forms of food.

A further related consideration is the ratio of omega 3:6, polyunsaturated fatty acids – vegetable oils e.g. corn, sunflower, soyabean oil) are commonly the source of fat in margarine’s, but these are examples of omega-6 fatty acids. Our Western diet tends to be too dominant in omega-6 fatty acids (which may be pro-inflammatory) which knock out the omega 3:6 ratio. Omega-3 are anti-inflammatory, so ideally we should be increasing our dietary sources of omega-3 and reducing the omega-6 to readdress the balance. There’s more about the ratio of omega 3:6 in our Bitesize Nutrition podcast (episode 3) with Dr Alex Richardson (Bitesize Nutrition podcast is free on iTunes, Spotify or our website).

What about butter?

If your diet includes a reasonable amount of processed foods you may want to choose butter instead of margarine to readdress the omega 3:6 ratio as processed foods like margarine are higher in omega-6.

Grass-fed butter has been identified as having high amounts of omega-3 which helps to reduce inflammation in the body and help to re-balance the omega 6:3 ratio[ii]. Grass-fed butter is also awash with lots of other nutrients not naturally found in margarine.

What about cholesterol lowering spreads?

These spreads have phytosterols or stanols added which lower LCD (bad) cholesterol. Again, this could be controversial as not all studies have shown a reduction in risk of heart disease even though LDL cholesterol is lower – but could this mean cholesterol levels aren’t always implicated in heart disease? Again, another controversial and ongoing topic.

 

Margarine is better than butter is the myth that Dr Alex Richardson chose to bust during Episode 3 of our podcast Bitesize Nutrition. Have a listen here to Episode 3 and the reasons why she chose butter.

If margarine is your spread of choice try to select one without TFA, and preferably choose one with a healthier oil like olive oil.

If butter is your spread of choice where possible choose a butter from grass-fed cows.

The butter versus margarine is a contentious subject even among academics. I had Professor Tim Spector as a guest on the podcast recently and in his latest book (Spoonfed) he also references this. I think a balanced approach should be taken – whichever is chosen, moderation should be key.

A reminder:

  • The information in this article is for educational purposes and should not replace medical advice.
  • The information is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition.
  • If you have a diagnosed medical condition, you should consult a doctor before making any major changes to your diet, and;
  • Some supplements may interact with medications and you should check with your GP before commencing any supplement programme.

[i] https://www.diabetes.co.uk/food/trans-fats.html#:~:text=Bans%20on%20trans%20fats%20currently,foods%20on%20a%20voluntary%20basis.

[ii] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/butter-vs-margarine#:~:text=Put%20simply%2C%20modern%20margarine%20is,product%20designed%20to%20imitate%20butter.

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