Which Butter (or Spread) Is Better?

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The world of nutrition is often confusing, even for dietitians and other nutrition experts. Debates (and bickering) rage on about which diet is best for weight loss, how much carbohydrate a person with diabetes should have, and what kind of fat is best to eat.

It’s not so easy these days to choose a spread for your morning toast or your baked potato. Years ago, folks had pretty much two choices: butter and margarine. Today, we have butter, light butter, whipped butter, stick margarine, vegetable oil spread, margarine with phytosterols, margarine with yogurt, and vegan margarine (just to name a few). How do you possibly choose?

First things first
Most people know that butter and margarine are not the same. There are distinct differences between the two, even though they’re often used for the same purpose.

• Made from churned cream (so it’s an animal product)

• Contains cholesterol and saturated fat (1 tablespoon has roughly 30 milligrams of cholesterol and 7 grams of saturated fat)

• Does not contain trans fats (an unhealthy type of fat formed when oils are partially hydrogenated)

• Contains vitamins A, D, E, and K

• Good choice for baking

• Healthier options are whipped butter or butter blended with canola or olive oil

• “European-style” or “rich” butter contains even more fat and saturated fat than regular butter

• Made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil

• Some brands contain trans fat (1 tablespoon of stick margarine contains 3 grams of trans fat)

• Contains less saturated fat than butter (1 tablespoon has approximately 2–3 grams of saturated fat) and no cholesterol

• Tub and liquid margarines are healthier than stick margarines

• Some brands are fortified with plant stanols or sterols to help lower blood cholesterol

• Not good for baking due to its high water content

The debate
For many years, medical and nutrition experts recommended using margarine in place of butter because it contains no cholesterol and is lower in saturated fat than butter. But the tides slowly began to change (somewhat) regarding this recommendation. Sure, margarine is cholesterol free, but some brands contain trans fat, and we’ve learned how unhealthy this kind of fat is (it can raise LDL or “bad” cholesterol and lower HDL or “good” cholesterol). And while many brands of tub margarine, or spreads as they’re technically called, removed the trans fat, some people still shy away from them because these products may contain chemicals and colorings that they’re not comfortable ingesting.

The decision
In my opinion, there’s no clear-cut answer as to which is better: butter or margarine. As you can see from the information above, both have their pros and cons. This is a question that everyone needs to decide for himself, based, in part, on factors such as how much he uses, what he is using it for, and the state of his heart health. I don’t see anything wrong with using a little bit of butter every now and then (there’s nothing like butter on an ear of corn!), but going through a stick’s-worth each day isn’t going to do your arteries or waistline any favors. So, here are some suggestions and considerations as you make your deliberations on what’s best for you:

• Use a vegetable oil (olive, peanut, canola) for baking and cooking whenever possible.

• If you insist on using butter, try whipped or light butter, which has about half the fat and calories as regular butter.

• If you prefer to use margarine, choose a tub or liquid margarine that is the lowest in calories (go with a light margarine), contains no trans fat, and has the least amount of saturated fat (you’ll need to compare a few Nutrition Facts labels).

• If your LDL cholesterol is above target, consider using a vegetable oil spread that contains plant stanols or sterols, such as Benecol or Promise activ.

• If you’re interested in using grass-fed butter, know that this type of butter is made from the milk of cows fed grass instead of grain. Grass-fed butter has the same amount of saturated fat as “regular” butter, but contains more beta-carotene, more vitamin K, and more omega-3 fatty acids. There’s no scientific evidence that grass-fed butter is any better for you, however, than regular butter.

• Saturated fat is not off the hook in terms of heart health. A recent study reported that saturated fat did not increase the risk for heart disease, but the study was not conducted well. The authors admitted as such, citing limitations, including the fact that fat intake of the subjects was self-reported (not a very scientific way of conducting a study).

• Regardless of what you use, remember that butter, margarines, spreads, and oils still contain calories.

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