Butter vs margarine – it’s the great grocery debate that has gripped Australian households for nearly a century. Although margarine was produced as a substitute to butter, the two products are considerably different. We take a look at the history and ingredients of butter and margarine, and compare the health benefits of both.
Whether it’s in baked goods or on your morning toast, butter probably fits into your daily diet somewhere. While butter-lovers will likely argue to the bitter end that butter is both healthier and better tasting than margarine, there is a bit more to it than that.
The history of butter
Butter has pretty much been around since the beginning of recorded history, with no one person or civilisation truly credited for its discovery. The word “butter” however is said to have come from the Greek word bou-tyron, meaning “cowcheese”.
Butter has been used for a number of things throughout history, such as foods, cosmetics, medicine and religious services. However, it wasn’t until the industrial age that butter became used as a popular food additive. In fact, butter was in such high demand during this era that it led to the creation of its cheaper alternative – margarine.
What’s butter made out of?
Butter is made from rigorously churned cow’s milk. While this means butter is 100% natural and includes important vitamins A and E, it also has a high level of saturated fats, loaded with calories. Saturated fats in large amounts can be harmful to your body, though they are not as bad for you as trans fats – the fats found in some margarines and processed foods.
Butter comes in salted and unsalted types, but ingredients don’t vary much more than that. Despite this, the taste, quality and fat content can differ between different products due to the quality of ingredients used and processing methods, so don’t assume all butter is the same.
Margarine is a processed substitute for butter, so it has a bad reputation for being “unnatural”, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it is worse for you. While butter has stayed the same for centuries, margarine is constantly evolving and improving, with some brands offering a huge variety of different products suited to particular dietary requirements or preferences.
The history of margarine
Margarine was developed in the 1800s by French scientist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès after Napoleon III offered a prize to anyone who could produce a cheap butter substitute for his army. The butter industry was naturally concerned by this, and until the mid-1900s, successfully campaigned against commercial margarine – causing many jurisdictions to enforce a number of margarine ‘disincentives’ such as taxes and presentation regulations. Despite this, margarine remained competitive and the rest, as they say, is history.
What’s margarine made out of?
Unlike butter, margarine uses little or no dairy and is instead created primarily by processing plant-based oils, including sunflower oil and olive oil. Margarine is generally lower in saturated fats, so it was once believed to be the healthier alternative to real butter. It has since been realised, however, that the traditional processes used in solidifying vegetable oils to produce margarine creates ‘trans fats’, which increases cholesterol, with an associated risk of coronary heart disease.
Keep in mind that not all margarine is the same. Modern margarines are made with a range of salts, emulsifiers and oils, and many producers now claim to be trans fat free. Stick margarines generally remain high in trans fats, while some of the new tub margarines have eliminated trans fats and considerably reduced the level of saturated fats to levels well below butter.
So what’s better for you, butter or margarine?
As lovely as it might be to give a black and white answer to this question, the bottom line is… it depends.
It’s really a trade-off. Butter has a reputation for tasting better than margarine, but some margarines have lower fat content than butter, making them better for your health. Margarines can vary drastically in their ingredients and fat content, so make sure you read the label to understand what you’re eating.
With this said, neither butter nor margarine is actually that good for you, so they should only be enjoyed in moderation anyway.