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Butter vs. margarine

Butter and margarine — are they good or bad? The relative healthfulness of butter versus margarine has been an ongoing controversy. It has started many debates by nutrition scientists in laboratories and consumers in grocery stores.

Butter has a long history dating to ancient times. Rationed during the Second World War, butter was such a desired commodity that many people kept a cow to provide butter.

Margarine was developed in 1870 in response to Napoleon’s challenge for a butter substitute. A Frenchman discovered margaric acid and used it to create his butter-like concoction. The drops of fat reminded the researcher of pearls, which in Greek are called “margarites.”

In the early 1900s, margarine was white and colouring bans were in place in 32 states. Taxes were placed on yellow margarine, so “bootleg” coloured margarine became popular. During the 1930s, the U.S. military was banned from using margarine for anything other than cooking. By the 1950s, the restrictions on margarine ended, and since then, many types and brands of margarine have become available.

Compare the types of fat you typically purchase. Margarine types vary in their nutritional content, so compare labels for saturated fat and trans fat in particular. Saturated fat is found naturally in some vegetable and animal fats.

Trans fat is formed when vegetable oils are hydrogenated to make solid or shelf-stable shortenings, margarine and oils. Trans fat is found in most fast-food french fries, in some snack foods and in some bakery goods such as cookies, pastries and cakes.

Consuming a diet high in trans fat may result in a double whammy. It may raise your LDL (bad) blood cholesterol and reduce your HDL (good) blood cholesterol.

Consider these tips when choosing the spread for your toast:

  • Minimize your trans fat intake. Be a label reader. If the ingredient list includes “partially hydrogenated oil,” there’s a good chance the food contains some trans fat. Be aware of this loophole for food manufacturers: Foods that contain less than 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving can list the amount of trans fat as zero.
  • Don’t give up on your favourite foods. If you prefer butter, monitor your portion size. Keep in mind that 1 tablespoon of butter provides more than one-third of the “daily value” for saturated fat.
  • If you prefer margarine or are on a special diet, use the softer spreads that have less saturated fat and trans fat. Consider trying some of the spreadable butter and oil mixtures.
  • Try recipes that call for oil instead of solid shortening.

About the author


Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

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