What is the difference between butter and margarine

butter vs margarine

What is the difference between butter vs margarine ?

What is Butter

Butter is a dairy product containing up to 80% butterfat (in commercial products) which is solid when chilled and at room temperature in some regions and liquid when warmed. Butter is made by churning fresh or fermented cream or milk to separate the butterfat from the buttermilk. Most frequently made from cows’ milk, butter can also be manufactured from the milk of other mammals, including sheep, goats, buffalo, and yaks. Salt such as dairy salt, flavorings and preservatives are sometimes added to butter. Rendering butter produces clarified butter or ghee, which is almost entirely butterfat.

Butter is a water-in-oil emulsion resulting from an inversion of the cream; in a water-in-oil emulsion, the milk proteins are the emulsifiers. Butter remains a solid when refrigerated, but softens to a spreadable consistency at room temperature, and melts to a thin liquid consistency at 32–35 °C (90–95 °F). The density of butter is 911 g/L (0.950 lb per US pint). Butter generally has a pale yellow color, but varies from deep yellow to nearly white. Its unmodified color is dependent on the animals’ feed and genetics but is commonly manipulated with food colorings in the commercial manufacturing process, most commonly annatto or carotene.

Butter is generally used as a spread on plain or toasted bread products and a condiment on cooked vegetables, as well as in cooking, such as baking, sauce making, and pan frying. Butter consists of butterfat, milk proteins and water, and in some types, added salt. Butter may also be sold with added flavorings, such as garlic butter.

Table 1. Butter (salted) nutrition facts

[Source: United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service 1)]

What is Margarine

Margarine is an imitation butter spread used for spreading, baking, and cooking. Unlike butter, modern margarine is made mainly of refined vegetable oil and water, and may also contain milk.

Modern margarines can be made from any of a wide variety of animal or vegetable fats, mixed with skim milk, salt, and emulsifiers. Margarines and vegetable fat spreads found in the market can range from 10 to 90% fat. Depending on its final fat content and its purpose (spreading, cooking or baking), the level of water and the vegetable oils used vary slightly. The oil is pressed from seeds and refined. It is then blended with solid fat. If no solid fats are added to the vegetable oils, the latter undergo a full or partial hydrogenation process to solidify them. The resulting blend is mixed with water, citric acid, carotenoids, vitamins and milk powder. Emulsifiers such as lecithin help disperse the water phase evenly throughout the oil, and salt and preservatives are also commonly added. This oil-and-water emulsion is then heated, blended, and cooled. The softer tub margarines are made with less hydrogenated, more liquid, oils than block margarines.

Margarine is manufactured through a multi-step process:

Vegetable oils are extracted from corn, cottonseed, soybeans or safflower seeds. Hexane, an organic compound commonly used as a solvent, is used in the extraction process.

  • The oil is steam cleaned to remove most impurities. Steaming also destroys vitamins and antioxidants.
  • Hydrogen gas is bubbled through liquid oil in the presence of a catalyst (usually nickel). This forces unsaturated fatty acids to become saturated and solid. The more complete the hydrogenation process, the firmer the finished product. Margarine undergoes partial hydrogenation, to make it semi-solid.. Partial hydrogenation produces a lumpy grey grease and results in the formation of trans-fats.
  • Emulsifiers are added to remove lumps; bleach to remove the grey color.
  • A second steam cleaning removes chemical odors.
  • Synthetic vitamins, artificial colors and a natural yellow color are added. The final product is packaged as a healthy alternative to butter.

Three types of margarine are common:

  1. Soft vegetable fat spreads, high in mono- or polyunsaturated fats, which are made from safflower, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed, rapeseed, or olive oil.
  2. Margarines in bottle to cook or top dishes
  3. Hard, generally uncolored margarine for cooking or baking. (Shortening)

The health impacts of margarine are related to the types and proportion of fats it contains. These fats are divided into two categories: The fat composition of the vegetable oil and the unhealthy forms of fat (fatty acids) created in the manufacturing process. But not all margarines are created equal — some margarines contain trans fat. In general, the more solid the margarine, the more trans fat it contains. So stick (hard) margarines usually have more trans fat than tub margarines do.

When comparing spreads, be sure to read the Nutrition Facts panel and check the grams of saturated fat and trans fat. Limit the amount you use to limit the calories. Look for a spread that doesn’t have trans fats and has the least amount of saturated fat.

Table 2. Margarine nutrition facts


[Source: United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service 2)]

The main difference between butter and margarine

Apart from how they are made and their ingredients, the other major difference between butter and margarine revolve around these two aspects:

  1. the Total amount of Fat, and
  2. the Types of Fatty Acids (“good fats” like your polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats vs “bad’ fats” like saturated and trans fats).

In the past, the amount and types of fats between butter and traditional margarine were similar with respect to their energy content. For example, the older stick margarines that are still widely sold are high in trans fats, and are worse for you than butter. But now you can buy newer margarines that are low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated fat, and margarine spreads that are made with plant stanols or phytosterols which are healthier version that could help lower your cholesterol 3), 4). Just don’t eat too much because they are still rich in calories. Typical soft tub margarine contains 10% to 20% of saturated fat (Table 2). Regular butterfat contains 52 to 65% saturated fats (Table 1).

You can quickly compare the health value of spreads (including butter and margarine) simply by looking at the nutrition labels on these products. The FDA now requires nutrition labels to include information about both saturated fats and trans fats. Your goal is to limit intake of saturated fats and to avoid trans fats altogether.

Healthier alternatives to butter or margarine include olive oil and other vegetable oil–based spreads, which contain beneficial mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Next time you tear into a warm loaf of bread or roll, consider dipping it in olive oil rather than coating it in butter. If you’re trying to lower your cholesterol, stanol-based spreads (for example, Benecol and Take Control) are even better, since regular use can help lower LDL “bad” cholesterol levels.

What are Fatty Acids

Fatty acids are long-chain hydrocarbons that can be separated into four categories: saturated, mono-unsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats. More than 20 types of fatty acids are found in foods; some of these are listed in Table 3. Sources of fatty acids include fruits, vegetable oils, seeds, nuts, animal fats, and fish oils. Essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids, serve important cellular functions. They are a necessary part of the human diet because the body has no biochemical pathway to produce these molecules on its own.

In saturated fatty acids, the carbon chain has the maximum number of hydrogen atoms attached to every carbon atom. The word “saturated” here refers to the number of hydrogen atoms surrounding each carbon atom. The chain of carbon atoms holds as many hydrogen atoms as possible — it’s saturated with hydrogens (see Figure 1). If a pair of hydrogen atoms is missing because of a double bond between two carbon atoms, it is called an unsaturated fatty acid. A fatty acid with a single double bond is monounsaturated, whereas a fatty acid with more than one double bond is polyunsaturated (Figure 2 and 3).

Figure 1. Saturated Fatty Acids Structure


Figure 2. Monounsaturated Fatty Acids Structure

monounsaturated fatty acids structure

Figure 3. Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Structure

polyunsaturated fatty acids structure

Several large observational studies have found an association between an increased intake of monounsaturated fatty acids and a decreased risk of coronary heart disease. Evidence from controlled clinical studies has shown that monounsaturated fatty acids favorably affect a number of risk factors for coronary heart disease, including lowering total and LDL “bad” cholesterol levels, protecting against thrombogenesis, reducing LDL susceptibility to oxidation, and producing a more favorable glycemic profile 5).

Polyunsaturated fatty acids, which include omega-3 fatty acids, have been studied extensively for their effect on several diseases: asthma 6), cancer cachexia 7), intermittent leg claudication due to peripheral artery disease 8), cardiovascular disease 9), Crohn’s disease 10), cystic fibrosis 11), dementia prevention 12), type 2 diabetes 13), kidney transplant 14), schizophrenia 15), ulcerative colitis 16), Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to provide some benefit to patients with cystic fibrosis, and may have a protective effect against dementia 17), 18). Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to be beneficial in some inflammatory-related diseases because they displace omega-6 fatty acids, including arachidonic acid (AA), in the cell membrane. This reduces the creation of metabolic end products, including prostaglandins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes 19).

Additionally, maternal omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy and lactation may provide a beneficial effect on the cognitive development of infants and children, but evidence is inconclusive about the benefits of omega-3 supplementation in pre-term and full-term infants 20). Several review articles have examined the relationship between omega-3 fatty acid intake and cancer incidence, including prostate cancer, colon cancer, and skin cancer 21), 22), (Black HS, Rhodes LE. The potential of omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention of non-melanoma skin cancer. Cancer Detect Prev. 2006;30(3):224–232.()). A recent systematic review concluded that the literature does not support an association between increased omega-3 fatty acid intake and reduced cancer incidence 23). However, a Cochrane review of 48 randomized controlled trials and 41 cohort analyses suggests that further high-quality trials are needed to confirm the protective effect of omega-3 fatty acids in persons at increased risk of cardiovascular disease 24). The authors concluded that increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids did not significantly alter total mortality or combined cardiovascular events in persons with cardiovascular disease, in persons at high risk of cardiovascular disease, or in the general population 25). Excessive consumption of polyunsaturated fats is not recommended because of the increased risk of excessive weight gain and the increased risk of gallstone formation in some persons 26).

Studies have shown that consuming saturated fatty acids has a detrimental effect on serum lipids by increasing low-density lipoprotein (LDL “bad”) cholesterol levels 27). Increased consumption of saturated fatty acids has also been associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease (coronary artery disease). The Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association has recommended that less than 7 percent of total calories should be from saturated fatty acids, that’s about 13 grams of saturated fats a day 28). According to the American Heart Association Advisory 29), cardiovascular disease was lowered by about 30 percent, similar to the effect of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs when vegetable oil replaced saturated fat in the diet, according to the advisory. The switch to healthier oils also was associated with lower rates of death from all causes. Saturated fats are common in the American diet. They are solid at room temperature — think cooled bacon grease, butter, beef tallow, coconut oil, ghee or pork lard. Common sources of saturated fat include lard, butter, ghee, red meat, palm oil, whole milk and other whole-milk dairy foods, cheese, coconut oil, and many commercially prepared baked goods and other foods 30). Replacing just 1% of daily consumption of saturated fatty acids with equivalent calories from polyunsaturated fats, whole grain carbohydrates, or plant proteins, was estimated to reduce relative coronary heart disease risk by 6%-8%. Replacing palmitic acid—found in palm oil, meat, and dairy fat—was associated with the strongest risk reduction.

Moreover, the worst type of dietary fat is the kind known as Trans Fat. The right amount of trans fats is zero !  These fats have no nutritional value and we know for certain they are bad for heart health. Trans fats increase LDL “bad” cholesterol and triglyceride levels while reducing levels of HDL “good” cholesterol. The trans fats also known as hydrogenated oils because the trans fats come from vegetable oils that were chemically modified so they are solid like butter. The solidifying process – called hydrogenation – that is used to turn healthy oils into solids and to prevent them from becoming rancid. When vegetable oil is heated in the presence of hydrogen and a heavy-metal catalyst such as palladium, hydrogen atoms are added to the carbon chain. This turns oils into solids e.g. margarines, vegetable shortening. It also makes healthy vegetable oils more like not-so-healthy saturated fats. On food label ingredient lists, this manufactured substance is typically listed as “partially hydrogenated oil” in order to extend the shelf life of food, but it also turns polyunsaturated oils into a kind of man-made cholesterol. Trans fats can increase your level of “bad” LDL cholesterol and may increase your risk of heart disease. What’s more, these man-made fats are taken up by the body much easier than are omega-3s. So trans fatty acids not only harm your health, they also block the absorption of healthy fats.

Because these trans fat oils don’t spoil as quickly as butter, they are used in most packaged cookies, chips, crackers and other baked goods sold in the supermarket, as well as in margarines. Trans Fat (Hydrogenated Oils) are found in most processed food, including margarine, potato chips, baked goods, cookies, pastries to fast-food French fries, etc. They are toxic, blocking absorption of essential fatty acids and eating foods rich in trans fats increases the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream and reduces the amount of beneficial HDL cholesterol. Trans fats create inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. They contribute to insulin resistance, which increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Research from the Harvard School of Public Health and elsewhere indicates that trans fats can harm health in even small amounts: for every 2% of calories from trans fat consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23%.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting your trans fat daily consumption to less than 1 percent.

The consumption of trans fats has been directly linked to an increase in coronary heart disease. Trans fats appear to have a detrimental effect on serum lipids by increasing LDL “bad” cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and reducing high-density (HDL “good”) lipoprotein cholesterol levels 31), 32), 33), 34), 35). Studies have shown that substituting 2 percent of total energy intake with trans-fatty acids is associated with a 14 to 36 percent increase in the incidence of coronary artery disease (Table 4) 36), 37), 38), 39). Observational data from the Nurses’ Health Study suggests that replacing 5 percent of energy from saturated fat with energy from unsaturated fats could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by 42 percent; however, replacing only 2 percent of energy from trans fats with energy from non-hydrogenated, unsaturated fats could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by 53 percent 40).

Trans fats have no known health benefits and that there is no safe level of consumption. Recently, the FDA banned trans fats from the U.S. food supply. The phasing-out process is expected to take three years. The encouraging news is that many major food suppliers and restaurants have already substituted healthier fats for trans fats. Today, these mainly man-made fats are rapidly fading from the food supply.

Table 4. Trans Fat Consumption and Coronary Heart Disease

StudyNumber of patientsYears of follow-upRelative risk of coronary heart disease with trans-fat consumption*

Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Study 41)

21,930 men who smoke



Zutphen Elderly Study 42)

667 men



Health Professionals Follow-up Study 43)

43,757 men



Nurses’ Health Study 44)

80,082 women



CHD = coronary heart disease

*—For each isocaloric substitution of 2 percent of total energy intake with trans-fatty acids.

[Source 45)]

References   [ + ]

Health Jade