From a health perspective, until very recently, butter was deemed as “the bad fat” and margarine as “the good fat.” The National Heart Foundation awarded some margarines with their approved “Health Tick” but in October 2016 the Heart Foundation removed their “approved ticks” stating that, “the nutritional landscape has changed.” Like eggs, new science has shown that butter is no longer the bad guy when it comes to heart health but, like margarine, only when used in moderation.
Butter is made from saturated fat, once thought to raise LDL “bad” cholesterol levels. New studies show grass-fed butter (which is our New Zealand butter) also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which helps improve body composition and protect against cancer as well as triglycerides which are helpful for the gut bacteria, immune function, and metabolism. It’s also particularly rich in Vitamin K2, which can have powerful health benefits fighting cardiovascular disease, cancer and osteoporosis.
Margarine is made from vegetable oils containing polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats that can reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad," cholesterol. There are literally dozens of margarines made from lots of different vegetable oils, like canola or rapeseed oil. Many have a yellow dye added to make the margarine more butter-like while some blend butter with margarine so it becomes a “spread”.
Not all margarines are created equal — some contain trans fat that actually increases blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease, so read the ingredients labels carefully before you make your choice. So, yes, while neither fats are truly healthy, some margarines used in moderation are fine.
The MPI, New Zealand’s Ministry of Primary Industries, is introducing “HSR’s” or 5 Star Health Star Ratings, an Australasian standardised system, to replace the old heart tick. Meanwhile, check out healthstarrating.gov.au but be warned, the rating changes frequently as new evidence comes onstream.
Please don’t cook with margarine
Margarine is the convenient spread for sandwiches and it’s usually cheaper than good butter but if you are using margarine for cooking or baking please don’t. Ever! Replace it with a good liquid vegetable oil instead.
I use butter for lightly frying fresh fish or scallops (with a touch of garlic) but a good olive oil for frying everything else. Use avocado oil if you can afford it which has a very high smoke point, upwards of 270 ° C. Blander vegetable oils can replace butter in baking if you wish.
Butter can be used for a spread too, either use the semi-soft butter option, a butter softener in your fridge if you have one or like me, leave the butter out for a few minutes before use.
It’s a matter of taste
Butter, I believe, has superior taste. Margarine has superior “spread” convenience at a better price point.
Both options are “healthful” to a point but be sparing with either choice. Butter contains 100 calories and 12 grams of fat per tablespoon so factor that in.
If price is your only concern you can make your own. Seriously. Butter is made simply from pasteurised cream with a little optional salt added.
It’s your choice
The bottom line, butter or margarine? It’s your choice - but choose your margarine very carefully. The old heart ticks on the tub made it easier to choose a good margarine but until the 5 Star HSR rating is fully implemented do your homework.
As an essential fat, I use way more vegetable oils including virgin olive oil in daily cooking and flaxseed oil in my daily smoothies. I will always opt for simple, real, honest foods, seasonal fruits and vegetables and I will shun foods that are complex and processed.