Remember when coffee was bad for you? Now it’s good. Ditto with red wine – in moderation of course. As scientific knowledge progresses it is easy to get left behind. It seems that nutritionists have been changing their minds about butter again. It turns out that butter can be good – and so can margarine. We help you determine which might be best for you and your family.


Margarine was patented in 1869 by a chemist and was used in France as a cheap butter substitute for the armed forces.
Modern margarine is an emulsion of fat, or water in fat, oil, or fat and oil that are not derived from milk and contains at least 80% fat. Without the color additives, margarine would be white – like lard. In some places in the U.S. it’s still referred to as “oleo”, short for oleomargarine.  Some baby boomers may remember mixing a glob of yellow coloring into the white blob to give margarine a more appealing yellowish color.

So we know that margarine was invented by chemists and that butter is generally natural, made from just cream and sometimes salt. So is butter better? Not necessarily.

The confusion surrounding which is better is largely a long-standing fight between the dairy industry and the oleomargarine industry.


Butter has a lot of artery-clogging saturated fat, and margarine contains an unhealthy combination of saturated and trans fats. The healthiest choice might be to skip both of them and use liquid oils, such as olive, canola and safflower oil instead.

Going butter-free is not practical for many purposes however. Even dietitians understand that some foods benefit greatly from the flavor of butter.

Understanding the pros and cons of each option can help you make informed choices about what to use and how often (or seldom) to use it. You may want to stock your fridge with both butter and margarine – and use them for different purposes.
Margarine comes in stick, tub and liquid forms and not all of them are created equal. Some stick margarines may be no better than butter in terms of their health effects.


Stick butter
  • 100 calories
  • 11 g total fat
  • 7 g saturated fat
  • 0 g trans fat
  • 30 mg cholesterol
Stick margarine
  • 100 calories
  • 11 g total fat
  • 2 g saturated fat
  • 2 g trans fat
  • 0 mg cholesterol
Tub margarine
  • 60 calories
  • 7 g total fat
  • 1 g saturated fat
  • 0.5 g trans fat
  • 0 mg cholesterol


Margarine is recommended for heart health by the Mayo Clinic. Margarine is much lower in saturated fat than butter, and it is made from vegetable oils, so it contains no cholesterol. Margarine also contains high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, nutrients that are essential in a balanced diet. High omega-6 fatty acids may cause problems in high quantities however when they are not balanced with omega 3 fatty acids.


Many chefs prefer butter for baking and cooking for the flavor and other properties. You may consider saving butter for special recipes or occasions and use it sparingly. Unlike margarine, butter does not have trans-fat, which is even worse for you than saturated fat. Trans fat raises LDL (bad) cholesterol significantly and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol.

  • In most instances soft is better than stick.
  • Soft/whipped butter has half the calories of stick butter.
  • Soft, trans-fat-free margarine (the tub variety) is recommended by the American Heart Association.
  • Check the soft spread margarine label. If it says “partially hydrogenated oils” it can still have some trans-fat (less than 0.5 gram per serving) even if the label says trans-fat free.

What are we doing? We’re cooking with unsalted butter or oil and spreading soft, trans-fat-free margarine on our toast.


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