The butter verse margarine debate has flared up again… and this time it’s personal! =)
Alisha, the Naughty Naturopath Mum and Essence Practitioner, and good friend of mine, have entered into a mutually respectful (heated, hair pulling, name calling) debate over the nutritional value of butter verse margarine. Being that we are two mature professionals and mothers, we thought rather than fight it out in the ring we would both compile our evidence and present both viewpoints.
Although we both have an underlying agenda to prove ourselves right (well at least I do), we both feel that this little exercise severs well to highlight the bounty of information and research available, and the importance of making choices that are right for you and your family based on good quality evidence.
So let’s get into it!
From a nutritional stand point I firstly really want to highlight that fat, be it saturated as predominant in butter, or unsaturated as predominant in margarine, it is recommended to comprise about 30% of our daily energy intake with saturated fat, contributing no more than 10%. (1) Fat, regardless of its saturation status, provides more than twice the energy of carbohydrate or protein (37kJ/g compared with 16.7kJ/g for carbohydrate or protein), and whilst having a critical role in the diet it should be kept to the recommended levels to avoid displacing other nutrients or contributing to excess energy intake which increases the risk obesity, coronary heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. (1,2)
Further to these risks of excess fat intake, saturated fat (as chemically distinguished by its ‘saturation’ with hydrogen which causes it to be solid at room temperature), has been identified specifically in its role in raising LDL (bad) cholesterol, while unsaturated fats (generally liquid at room temperate) such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega 3, has a positive role in heart health. (1,2)
Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acid has in fact, been the focus of much attention from the World Health Organisation and the National Heart Foundation of Australia, for its role in reducing coronary heart disease and stroke, with these leading bodies making a concerted effort to increase the populations intakes of EPA, DHA, ALA (marine and plant based omega-3, such as found in walnuts, linseed/flaxseed, chai seeds, canola oils and canola based margarines.(2,3)
With these functions of saturated and unsaturated fat in mind, consider that butter is approximately 60% saturated fat derived from dairy, while margarines, derived from plant oils, contain approximately 60% unsaturated fats and often includes omega 3s and even plant sterols which actively work to reduce cholesterol levels. (4-6)
From simply making this distinction about saturated fat in butter compared with unsaturated fats in margarine, the debate to me seems clear cut. By swapping from butter to margarine, saturated fat intake will be replaced by unsaturated fat, thereby having a positive long term effect on heart health (however if you do not currently consume butter or margarine, there is certainly no reason to start). (2,3)
The argument for butter, as I understand it however, presents that margarine is ‘unnatural,’ was designed to fatten turkeys, and is “one molecule short of plastic.”
Despite these sentiments I have found little data to convincingly support the health benefits of butter* (PubMed search term).
The article The 20 Health Benefits of Real Butter, as an example of the information circulating, to me, lacks credibility and is somewhat misleading. (7) The credibility of this website immediately comes to question, as it lists Wikipedia as a source of information. (4) This article promotes the health benefits attributed to butter to include being a source of vitamin A, E and K, which are also readily available in other foods which don’t play a negative role in heart health due to saturated fat content. (8) Other health benefits of butter listed referred to its anti-stiffness factor properties, stating (butter) “is your only source of an anti-stiffness factor, which protects against calcification of the joints,” however a search of this very quickly revealed that green vegetables, raw sugarcane juice and raw cream were all crude sources.(7,9)
Beyond the question of credibility of this information it is important to point out that cardiovascular disease, with well established links to excess intake of saturated fat from sources such as butter and full fat dairy amongst others, accounted for more deaths than any other disease (34%) in Australia in 2007-08.(8)
I certainly concede that, yes butter is more “natural” than margarine in that margarine has undergone a “plasticing” process (hydrogenation) to transform a liquid oil into a solid, spreadable product. However being “natural” does not change the negative contribution butter can make to heart health outcomes. It is also true that the process of hydrogenating unsaturated fats to make margarine can produce Trans- fatty acids, which like saturated fatty acids, have a significant role in increasing LDL cholesterol and thus cardiovascular disease. (2,10) This complication in producing margarines in Australia is now very well controlled with most containing less than 1% Trans-fatty acid (check the label – and note that Trans- fats also occur naturally in foods). (4,11,12)
I also have heard the argument raised that margarine is artificially coloured (true), thereby making them bad – but again if you are avoiding artificial colours or preservatives for your general health (which is reasonable), I don’t see how opting for saturated fat is a better health choice? This of course is a population-based perspective and if you have allergies, intolerances or other specific health issues you should work with a dietician to plan a suitable diet.
I will leave my case against butter there, but I do suggest taking a further look at the information for yourselves. You can access some great factsheets through my reference list and view the Naughty Naturopath Mum and Essence Practitioner’s (AKA Alisha’s), counter case here. I certainly look forward to reading it and hearing your thought too but please remember that a difference in opinion does not warrant derogatory comments or negative remarks.
Overall I think it is important to remember:
Fat in the diet should be kept to the recommended levels;
It is not necessary to consume either butter or margarine;
Always do your own research and check the credibility of your sources.
Next time you’re looking for something to spread on your toast, save yourself this debate and reach for some avocado – it’s definitely natural, hasn’t been used to fatten turkeys (to my knowledge), has not been artificially coloured and contains loads of nutritional benefits including monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, K and C, fibre, antioxidants, folate and more!
If you enjoyed this post, or not, but are interested in more of my perspectives on fats and oils you can read my posts:
Still confused about fats? Or The Coconut Controversy
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.