Butter and margarine are both lipids. Therefore, it’s important to consume them in moderation. Only 30% of your daily calories should come from fats. The total amount of fat recommended is 65g/day for women and 90g/day for men. Keep in mind that a teaspoon of fat equals around 4g.
The amount of fat contained in butter and margarine is identical, but what differs is the quality of this fat.
On the one hand, butter has the advantage of being a natural product, but it contains saturated fat and cholesterol. On the other, margarine is a processed food, but can contain less saturated fat and more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats as well as phytosterols, all of which are beneficial for cardiovascular health.
Up until recently, saturated fats were considered damaging to health. However, lately this has been put into question by the scientific community. It would seem that reducing saturated fatty acids may not be that efficient in preventing cardiovascular illnesses. But careful, there’s more to this.
In this context, how can you make an informed choice between butter or margarine?
All margarines are made from vegetable oil. Nonetheless, it’s important to distinguish between the two types of margarine available on the market:
In Canada, all margarines contain added Vitamin D.
Plant compounds found in nature, phytosterols or plant sterols are found in small quantities in vegetable oils, nuts, cereal products and some fruits and vegetables. These compounds lower blood cholesterol. A beneficial effect is observed when at least 2g per day is taken.
To obtain 2g of phytosterols a day from enriched margarines, you need to consume 25g, around 5 teaspoons a day. These margarines are lower in fat and have a high water content. It’s therefore best to use them as a spread, as they don’t give great results in cooking.
Butter is a natural food that contains animal fats, composed of around 60-65% saturated fat, 35-40% unsaturated fat, 2-5% natural trans-fat and cholesterol.
Saturated fats have a tendency to increase total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, or “bad cholesterol”. However, they also slightly increase HDL cholesterol, or “good cholesterol”. In other words, current research indicates that saturated fats have two effects on cholesterol, one beneficial (increasing good cholesterol) and the other damaging (increasing bad cholesterol). This means you should look at the net effect of saturated fat intake on cholesterol, but, for the moment, this is complicated to measure.
In the last decade, the toxic effects of trans-fats on cardiovascular health have been highlighted. However, it would seem that only industrial trans-fats have a negative impact on our health. Indeed, two clinical studies compared the effects of both industrial and natural trans-fats on cardiovascular health. The results demonstrate that natural trans-fats, like the ones found in butter and dairy products, are not damaging to cardiovascular health, even if they are consumed in high quantities (4 g/day).
Another advantage of butter is that it naturally contains vitamin A and butyric acid. The latter is a short chain fatty acid that isn’t found in any other food. It protects against certain cancers, for example colon cancer.
Non-hydrogenated margarine presents a slightly more interesting nutritional profile to butter. However, nothing is stopping you from eating it, if only for its irreplaceable taste. What’s important is simply to consume it in moderation.
To make better choices about the fats you consume, take a look at these articles: