There's a lot of dispute about whether butter or margarine is better, with articles and information arguing both for and against each option. The debate has even made it into popular culture -- if Fabio's 'I Can't Believe It's Not Butter' rings a bell, you'll know what we're talking about.
The whole butter versus margarine argument is completely confusing and, quite frankly, all we want is to make toast in peace, without the fear of making the wrong choice.
What is the better option? Butter or margarine? According to Lauren McGuckin, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, it’s not so much about which one as how much.
“I guess I view butter and margarine as a level playing field because they are both a fat, full stop,” McGuckin told The Huffington Post Australia. “They’re all very energy dense.
“It comes down to how much the individual is using. If someone is having a tiny little spread of butter or margarine on toast with Vegemite, I have no problem with that.”
When we look at the differences in ingredients and chemical structures, however, the debate over whether butter or margarine is better becomes a little more complicated.
“When you’re looking at it in terms of ingredients or composition, then we’re breaking it down into the types of fats that are more predominant in those sorts of spreads,” McGuckin said.
“Butter is very high in saturated fat, which is the one we want to watch out for in terms of heart disease. We want people to limit their intake of saturated fat.”
Unlike margarine, however, butter is more natural.
“Butter is more natural and less processed than a lot of margarines,” McGuckin said. “If you look at the ingredients list there’s far less ingredients that go into butter than many margarines.”
This doesn’t mean you can go eating butter like cheese, however. As with sweets and cakes, everything in moderation.
“Within the context of someone’s day, if they have quite a high overall saturated fat intake and use a scrape of butter with their toast, the butter is probably the last thing I would pick on -- instead it would be the McDonald’s burgers they’re having or the three litres of full cream milk they’re consuming in their iced coffees each week.”
“Margarine and plant-based spreads are much higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, so they are more cardioprotective, I suppose, than saturated fats. But it depends on the amount you’re having, ” McGuckin told HuffPost Australia.
One of the biggest concerns surrounding margarine is the trans fat content.
“Trans fats are the really, really nasty ones that can clog up arteries," McGuckin said.
“They are formed when liquid vegetable oils are hydrogenated to turn them into semi solids, which is what is happening with your vegetable oils that are turned into margarine. It changes the fatty acid component structure and turns it into a trans form.
“They do worry about the trans fat content being very high in margarine but, typically, most of them these days are made solid by a process called interesterification, which does reduce this trans fat component significantly.
"All nutritional panels for any food that may contain trans fat they should be listed. Most product companies these days are pretty savvy and doing their best to keep that out by changing the processing nature."
Another potential issue with margarine is the range of ingredients that go into making them -- which are often unknown and unlabelled.
“In terms of the actual ingredients that go into these types of spreads, they will all be very different. They are not going to be equal,” McGuckin said.
“It depends on the vegetable oil component. Vegetable oil is generally a blend of different oils -- sunflower, canola, grapeseed, etc. -- so that’s going to change the nutritional value.”
With butter and margarine companies claiming they are healthier than the other, it can be impossible to know which one to choose. According to McGuckin, we should instead be focusing on reducing our overall consumption of these fats, regardless of which option you personally choose to eat.
“It comes down to the fact that fat is fat. Yes, they’re all different in their chemical structures and the way they interact in the body, but the bottomline is how much you’re using,” McGuckin said.
“Whether it’s margarine or butter, it’s still very energy dense, so we don’t want people eating copious amounts of any of them.
“Don’t put your eggs in one basket. It’s still a fat and is really just something to flick on your sandwich or on toast."
Choose Healthy Fats Instead
Instead of relying on butter and margarines, McGuckin suggests opting for whole food options instead.
“Fat helps keep us full, but we don’t want people using spreads to try to keep themselves filled up,” McGuckin told HuffPost Australia.
"Get your good fats from a varied diet with lean meat, avocado, nuts and seeds -- that’s what we want to be getting our fats from.
“I would prefer people to use avocado, it’s nature’s margarine. It’s absolutely perfect as it is. No processing involved, no risk of trans fats, no change to structures, tastes amazing and contains all natural vitamins and minerals.
“Nut butters, preferably the natural, unprocessed ones without the sugar and salt, are great. Bulk food places will also make pure nut butters fresh for you.”