Let's Settle This – Is Butter Or Margarine Better For You?

The age-old debate continues.
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Whether butter or margarine is better for you is one of those much-debated food questions, like whether the chicken or the egg came first or whether a hot dog is a sandwich.

But the geniuses over at nutrition science platform Zoe have debated the issue on a recent podcast, bringing to light some interesting pros and cons on both sides.

Dr Sarah Berry and Jonathan Wolf, Zoe’s co-founder and CEO first looked at how butter and margarine are made, and the very different ways the processing changes the molecules and chemical make-up of the products.

I know… SCIENCE. But bear with me.

So what’s the deal with margarine?

Margarine was first created in 1869 when France was at war and Napoleon was looking for cheap ways to feed his troops. A man called Hippolite Mège-Mouriès used animal fat and milk to create the first ever margarine.

This process is what’s known as hydrogenation. You might have heard of hydrogenated oils being bad for you, so this is where the scepticism around margarine has come about. People aren’t keen on the hydrogenation process as it introduces trans fats into the product, which are bad for our health as it increases the level of LDL in our body — the bad cholesterol.

But, Dr Sarah Berry says that, due to the negative perceptions surrounding hydrogenated oils and trans fats, in the UK, our margarine isn’t made using a hydrogenenation process. Instead, manufacturers use a process called ‘interesterification’, which removes dangerous trans fats.

“The process changes the structure of the fat molecules, which then changes the melting profile of the fat. It doesn’t change the amount of saturated monounsaturated, it just changes the structure of where the molecules sit within the fat. So that, again, you can have a spread that has the suitable melt profile so that it’s semi hard in the fridge and then soft for spreading when you take it out of the fridge,” explains Dr Berry.

“In the UK, the saturated fatty acids [found in margarine] are predominantly a saturated fat called palmitic acid,” she says.

This is another reason why margarine has a bit of a bad rep. Palmitic acid has been linked to serious conditions, such as brain diseases and cancers, but it’s important to note that not all studies produce the same findings. Associations between palmitic oil and an increased risk of breast cancer were found in one study but not in another, for example.

A surprising benefit of trans fat-free marg, though, is that if you were to swap from having butter to a margarine spread, you’ll get a reduction in circulating blood cholesterol, “so you’ll get a reduction in this bad LDL cholesterol”, says Dr Berry.

Dr Berry and Wolf don’t come to a consensus on whether margarine is really bad or good for you, but they do talk about how, as margarine is an ultra processed food under the official classifications, and health experts have shared about how we should be removing ultra processed foods from our diet for optimal health. So take from that what you will.

What about butter?

When it comes to the real dairy alternative, we’re not quite in the clear when it comes to good health either.

However, Dr Berry says that if you’re not consuming butter at an excess, then it seems to “have a very small impact on your health outcome.”

“If it’s at the level of intake that you know, most people in the UK and the US might consume by just spreading it, for example, on their sandwiches are on their toast, then the evidence at that level shows that it’s unlikely to have actually any significant long-term unfavourable effect at that low level of intake,” she explains.

So, should we eat butter or should we eat margarine?

Without sufficient, in-depth studies on the topic, it’s hard to balance out which is best for human health long-term. However, Wolf pitches an interesting alternative: extra virgin olive oil.

“I think extra virgin olive oil, without a doubt, is the healthiest fat or oil that anyone could consume,” he says.

“But it takes us back to that point about functionality that we talked about,” says Dr Berry, referencing a discussion they had earlier in the pod. “I don’t want to be putting extra virgin olive oil on my toast or my bagel in the morning. I want that lovely, creamy texture.”

Good point.

What does Dr Berry do personally? “I go for butter because of the creamy texture, the richness of it. If I had high cholesterol, I would probably still have butter just on my toast, but I would avoid using butter in other kinds of cooking. So I think at low levels it’s fine, but I think that what we should be trying to do is find other oils, to cook with where we don’t necessarily need that or desire that kind of creamy texture of butter.”

So, there you have it. Some butter on your toast every morning is probably fine over the course of your life, as long as you’re not bathing in the stuff. (However if you are, you do you! It’s meant to be good for skin).