Butter vs. margarine: which is better for your health?

05/11/2020

Although some people use the words butter and margarine interchangeably as if they were synonyms, they are not really the same, especially because of what their consumption represents for health. 

Aarón González Córdova and Belinda Vallejo, academics from the Food and Development Research Center (CIAD), shed more light on this.

The origin

Researchers from CIAD's Coordination of Food Technology of Animal Origin explained that butter is a product derived from milk that is obtained by churning and kneading milk fat and water (a solid emulsion of fat in water). Thus, its composition is mostly fat (80-90%), water (maximum 20%), and other constituents, of milk origin, in minority concentration. It is important to comment that as milk fat is the main component of butter, it preserves its vitamins (liposoluble) A, D, and E. In the supermarket, we can find it like butter with or without salt.

Margarine is a name used to generically denominate a food substitute for butter; however, this is elaborated with different fats (vegetable oils) to the lactic one and, in some cases, with small concentrations of other fats of animal origin. To achieve a butter-like consistency in margarine, vegetable oils must undergo different chemical processes, including hydrogenation, interesterification, or fractionation.

The flavor of both products can be distinguished, since butter is characterized by the flavor provided by the butyric acid present in the milk fat, while margarine is characterized by flavor notes associated with the majority vegetable oil present. Another notable difference is consistency, since butter is harder than margarine and this makes it more difficult to spread, even though both melt when subjected to high temperatures.

The debate

As a dairy product, butter is rich in saturated fats, which, although they have enjoyed a bad reputation for decades, have been proven to be unrelated to cardiovascular diseases. On the contrary, there is evidence that the trans fats associated with the hydrogenation of vegetable oils, with which margarine is made, are the cause of increased blood cholesterol and, consequently, an increased risk of heart problems.

The recommendation

Researchers who are experts in Dairy Chemistry and Biotechnology indicated that, although margarine is usually much cheaper than butter, due to the price of the raw materials with which it is made, it is more advisable to consume butter, as part of a balanced diet.

It is important to emphasize that both products have a high energy content, since a gram of butter has approximately 9 calories, while the same amount of margarine has 7 calories.

Now you know that, although they seem to be the same, they are not the same. They are different foods in their composition. Because of their fat content, it is convenient to moderate their consumption, especially if you are on a weight control regime.