Butter or Margarine

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Is margarine healthier than butter? As consumers, we are bombarded by different health disputes on a daily basis but today let us focus on one of the greatest disputes of all time; Butter versus Margarine!

Margarine was first invented by a French chemist named Hippolyte Mege-Mouries in 1869.  It was made from beef fat and had a longer shelf-life compared to butter. By World War 1, margarine was then exclusively made from vegetable oil such as cottonseed oil and soybean oil and exist in solid form (does not require refrigeration). In 1950, an American scientist named Ancel Keys published a series of studies that linked the dangers of saturated fat and heart disease. As butter contains 51% saturated fat compared to margarine (7-18% saturated depending on plant source), margarine became the perfect substitute for butter.

People dutifully switched to margarine as recommended by then nutritionists/researchers. However, people were still dying from heart diseases despite switching to margarine. In 1980, researcher Mary Enig discovered that 40 margarines contained 10.6 to 36% of trans fat. Trans fat is worse than saturated fat because not only it increases LDL-cholesterol (bad cholesterol in the blood), it reduces HDL-cholesterol (good cholesterol in the blood). While butter have more saturated fat than margarine, butter contains only 3.1 to 3.8% trans fat.

Two decades later, manufacturers of margarine developed trans-fat free margarine by replacing partially hydrogenated oil with water or liquid vegetable oil. Trans fat-free margarine have a softer texture and needs to be refrigerated. According to FDA, the trans fat content in a trans fat-free margarine needs to be less than 0.5g per 100g of the product.

Trans fat free margarine is generally healthier than butter as it is lower in saturated fat AND trans fat but can be more expensive than butter due to manufacturing processes. Bear in mind too that trans fat-free margarine is not suitable for baking due to its high water content. The old trans fat laden margarines are still available in the supermarkets/grocery stores and the best way to identify them is to look at the trans fat content on the nutrition information panel of the product. Alternatively, if margarines do not need to be refrigerated; chances are the trans fat content will be high.

So, back to the drawing board; should I use margarine or butter? As high intakes of saturated fat and trans fat are linked to heart disease, trans fat-free margarine will be a healthier choice. The occasional butter intake (1-2 times/week) is fine, but keep it to a thin spread.