Way back in the ‘90s, my mom switched from butter to margarine because it was “healthier.” All I knew is that it definitely didn’t taste the same and I didn’t like it as much (I was a little butter freak). But is margarine actually healthier than butter, or were the food advertisers just cashing in on a health trend? Let’s break it down and spread some knowledge.
What is butter?
Humanity has been buttering its bread on record since 2500 BCE. To make butter, you churn cow’s milk—or other animal’s milk—in order to extract the solid fat from the liquid. The fat solids are then formed into the delicious golden sticks and often salted for preservation.
It’s a scientific fact that butter tastes good on and in everything. From a simple buttered biscuit to a variety of baked goods to a basted turkey or steak, you gotta have butter. However, many doctors warn about excess butter in our diets. There are “good” (unsaturated) and “bad” (saturated) fats in the world and butter is mostly the bad kind. There’s also a decent amount of cholesterol in butter, which can clog up your arteries and cause all sorts of trouble.
What is margarine?
The concept of margarine has been around since the 1800s when it was primarily made of animal fats. By the end of World War II, the animal fats (rather than milk) were completely replaced by vegetable fats in all commercially available margarine.
Today, margarine contains no dairy at all. Nearly all modern margarines are made by putting vegetable oil through a whole bunch of inscrutable processes—emulsion, fractionation, interesterification, and the like—until it has the consistency and a vague resemblance of the taste of butter.
Margarine exploded in popularity in the 1970s, actually overtaking butter in total consumption. It got to the point where even romance novel cover model Fabio was telling us to eat margarine. But while margarine has no cholesterol, making it seem like a better alternative to butter, there are still downsides.
Related: Best Vegan Butter to Buy
Margarine has the same amount of calories as butter, so it’s not really helpful to any diet. And while it has significantly less saturated fat than butter, which is good, there is a far more insidious fat in margarine that we should avoid altogether: trans fat. Butter doesn’t have any trans fats, but margarine does. Saturated and especially unsaturated fats are, in moderation, a fine and essential part of the human diet. Trans fats provide absolutely no nutritional value and actually raise your cholesterol more than saturated fats.
Can you use margarine instead of butter?
Yes, you can. The two products can be used interchangeably, but you’ll want to use a stick of margarine instead of the spreadable stuff if a recipe calls for stick butter.
Margarine vs butter: TLDR
Butter is made from animal milk, margarine is made from plant-based fats. That means a lot of margarines are vegan. But while butter contains saturated fats, margarine contains trans fats. That’s really the story when it comes to the difference between butter and margarine.