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Butter or Margarine

"Which is healthier?"
By: Gidget Ortiz, MD, MS NutritionButter or Margarine

Butter and margarine are both fat foods. They are delicious and form part of the many good food items we enjoy like cakes and pastries. Both are good sources of energy and substances which in normal amounts are actually good for us like cholesterol, saturated and unsaturated fats, and vitamins.

These foods become a cause of concern when taken in excess! That is, when taking the same food in large quantities all the time. That is why, in healthy eating, we have to follow the principles of good nutrition—variety, balance, and moderation.

For most of us, when we sit down at the table, do we really know if it is butter or margarine on the serving plate? Usually, we don’t notice unless we are the food gatekeeper at home. Or when we dine at the fast food joints or restos, do we really have a choice in what they serve us?

So it only boils down to making good use of what we have: choosing between butter or margarine is one of the things we can do to make healthier meals. By following the variety principle, we can choose one day for butter and another day for margarine. We can also try other butters—those made from nuts like peanut and almond butter. We can also have no butter on some days.


The facts

Butter usually comes from milk of animals such as cow, sheep, or goats. Because it comes from an animal source it contains cholesterol and saturated fats. We use butter to spread on our toast, pancakes, and a lot more for cooking and baking. It provides an energy boost especially in the morning when we take it with our favorite breakfast. Butter contains vitamin A.

The look

Butter comes to us in stick or as a bar. It is solid at room temperature of 25°C. The butter’s solidity is because it contains saturated fats. Fats that are more saturated are more solid. Butter is saturated because the majority of the carbons (C) are attached to the hydrogens (H). Meaning, the carbons are saturated with the hydrogen.


The facts

Margarine usually is made from vegetable oils like canola, corn, or soy oil. Vegetable oils do not contain cholesterol but monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. Historically, margarine was “invented” in the 1800’s as a butter substitute when it became scarce because of the extensive industrialization and urbanization (movement from farm to city).

As an oil, margarine is a good source of the “good” fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Some oils like olive oil contain phytochemicals which are known to be beneficial in maintaining health.

The look

As a vegetable oil, original margarine looks more liquid than solid. But because scientist or food technologists wanted a butter substitute they “processed” the oils to make it solid so that it can be spread on pieces of bread. This process of making margarine more solid is known as hydrogenation. Basically, the hydrogenated state happens when the unsaturated is made saturated. Another term for this is the “trans” form—that is, transfat!

Following the principles of balance and moderation, we can spread a little butter (no more than 3 teaspoons) on toast with no guilty feelings, use liquid margarine to stir-fry favorite vegetables, or have some fresh butter or, instead of butter, put some white cheese on top of bibingka.

So, whether it’s a spoon of butter on your pancakes or a slather of margarine on your corn cob, it’s all great and healthy! Just take them in moderation (or talk to your health advisor if you have concerns such as a heart condition), and the winner will be... you!

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