Wdowik Nutrition Column: Butter or Margarine: Which Should I Use For The Holidays?

Note to Reporters: This column was written by Melissa Wdowik. Wdowik is an assistant professor at Colorado State University, director of the Kendall Anderson Nutrition Center and a CSU Extension affiliate.

A friend once asked me: which is worse, a pound of butter or a pound of margarine? My reply was, and still is, it depends. Are we talking about prevention of heart disease? Baking? Taste? It’s worth considering the pros and cons of each.

Butter is made from animal fat, so it contains dietary cholesterol and saturated fat, both of which contribute to heart disease. The recommended intake of saturated fat ranges from 10 – 15 grams per day or less, and one tablespoon of butter contains more than 7 grams.

On the other hand, butter is natural, has been around for generations and tastes good. It’s also your best fat for baking, since its high fat content results in light, flaky and tender products. Use unsalted butter for the best results, and consider these baked goods special treats to be enjoyed in moderation.

If you want butter for uses other than baking, try whipped butter or butter that is blended with a vegetable oil. These contain half the cholesterol and fat as regular butter, but still taste good.

What about margarine? Maybe you have heard the urban legend that margarine is only one molecule from being plastic. It’s an often repeated but pointless myth, since many substances share similar chemical properties but vastly different qualities.

Margarine is considered a better choice than butter for a healthy heart. It is made from vegetable oil so it does not contain cholesterol and is higher in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats than butter. These are the good fats that help reduce your body’s LDL – or bad– cholesterol when substituted for saturated fat. The trick is choosing the right margarine!

  • Stay away from solid stick margarine. These contain trans fatty acids, which raise blood cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Health experts recommend avoiding trans fat completely.
  • Choose liquid or soft margarine spread. The FDA now requires nutrition labels to include information about both saturated fats and trans fats, so check the label and pick one with no trans fat and the lowest saturated fat.
  • Compare lists of ingredients. Choose one with liquid as the first ingredient (either water or liquid vegetable oil). Canola and olive oil are particularly good choices.
  • Don’t forget about taste. There are plenty of options so find one you like.
  • Soft margarine spreads work for cooking, although I prefer vegetable oils such as olive and canola. Soft margarines do not work well for baking unless they are specifically made for this, so be sure to check labels and recipe instructions.
  • For lowering cholesterol, there is evidence that margarine, with added stanols and sterols such as Benecol and Take Control, can help lower LDL cholesterol levels if used on a regular basis, but they are expensive. Ask your doctor or dietitian if these are right for you.

To answer my friend’s question, I would have to point out that a pound of either butter or margarine is a really bad idea. High in calories, they should both be used in moderation.

As for me, I will continue to choose light margarine spread for my morning toast, olive oil for sautéing vegetables and butter for occasional baking. For the holidays, I’m looking forward to enjoying homemade cookies with my family, butter and all, eaten one mindful bite at a time!