Butter Versus Margarine

Do you prefer your toast with butter or margarine? While margarine is often touted as the healthy alternative to butter because it helps to lower cholesterol, there are a number of nutritional concerns that must be considered. Here are how these two popular spreads compare to each other.


Butter is a naturally made dairy product that has been around for centuries. It is made by churning fresh or fermented milk until the milk fat globules join together to form pale yellow clumps of fat known as butter grains. Butter is typically made from cows' milk but can also be made from many other animals including goats, sheep, and yaks. Salt and other flavorings are often added to the butter, although unsalted natural butter is also available. The latter is popular in Europe.

Butter is a solid when refrigerated but softens to a spreadable consistency at room temperature. Like margarine, it is used as a spread and a condiment, as well as for baking, sauces, pan frying, and various other cooking applications.


The French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès patented oleomargarine (shortened to margarine) in 1896 when the Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France offered a prize to whoever could make a substitute for butter which would be suitable for use by lower classes and the armed forces.

Once made from beef fat, most margarines today are made by combining vegetable oils (fats) with skim milk, salt, and emulsifiers. Coloring agents and vitamins A and D are often added to margarine to match the color and vitamin content of butter. Some of the best-tasting margarines are those blended with butter or other milk products. One of the best known products of this type is "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter".

Fat Content

Butter and margarine both contain approximately 80% fat and 20% water and solids. The main difference between them is the type of fat. Butter contains more cholesterol and saturated fat than margarine. On the other hand, butter does not contain the trans-fatty acids found in some margarines.

Margarines, as a whole, are lower in saturated fats than butter. However, many margarines contain trans fats that significantly raise undesirable LDL cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. Fortunately, a number of margarine products have been introduced in recent years that contain little or no trans fat.

The more solid the margarine, the more saturated fat and/or trans fat it contains. The worst offender is stick margarine, typically used for cooking and baking. A healthier option is blended margarines which are softer and come in a tub. They are made from mono- or polyunsaturated fats such as cottonseed, safflower, soybean, sunflower, or olive oil.

Health Benefits

Although margarine is often recommended as a healthier substitute for butter, studies have determined that some margarines are actually worse than butter. One has to factor in the type of margarine, trans fat and saturated fat levels, amount of artificial preservatives, etc.

Butter, especially organic butter, contains natural fatty acids that help the body to absorb nutrients found in vegetables and other foods. In addition, butter is a rich source of fat-soluble vitamins including vitamins A, D, E and K. Small amounts of butter in the diet can help with weight control by providing a satiety effect.

Dr. Weston Price, the author of the book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, identified that a certain ‘factor x’ in butter is essential for proper growth and development of the bone structure. In an experiment, he was able to reverse severe tooth decay in children by feeding them one meal a day of highly nutritious food, including butter.

Many people who are sensitive to cow’s milk dairy products are still tolerant of butter. This is because butter is almost pure fat and doesn’t contain many of the allergens, such as protein (casein) or milk sugar (lactose), which are found in most other milk products.


Butter is more expensive than margarine although the price gap between the two has narrowed over the years.