You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Butter vs. margarine: Why we're still not sure

9Coach logo 9Coach 1/02/2016 Stuart Marsh

The war between butter and margarine has sparked debate between nutritionists, dietitians, mums and dads for years, and it seems experts are no closer to deciding the better spread.

In the time of our grandparents, there was only ever one option to lay in thick slabs across toast: butter. But in the late 20th century, rising fears about the dangers of saturated fat had us all ditching the butter for its younger, more artificial and slightly-less-tasty cousin: margarine.

However, with the rise of fat-friendly eating movements like the Paleo and Mediterranean diets in recent years, butter has came back into vogue as people looked to eat as naturally as possible.

So the decision still remains – if you have a hot, crispy piece of toast sitting in front of you, which spread should you choose?

Peanut butter: <span style="font-size:13px;">We take a look at what's the healthier option to spread on your toast.</span> © Thinkstock We take a look at what's the healthier option to spread on your toast.

Natural vs. artificial

Julie Gilbert, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says margarine has been left by the wayside in modern diets because of its association with being "artificial".

"Because butter is naturally made, and margarine artificially created, there's this idea that margarine is bad for you, but that's not entirely correct," says Gilbert.

"Butter has three main ingredients – cream, water and salt – while margarine can be made with a number of different ingredients, including vegetable oils, emulsifiers and preservatives."

The practice of making butter is as old as civilisation itself. The Butter Journal (yes, there is an entire journal for budding "butter enthusiasts" to wax lyrical about their favourite spread) notes that Hindus in India have been making butter for at least 3000 years.

Margarine, in comparison, is relatively young – first produced by French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès in 1869. (For those of you wondering: yes, that was his real name.)

Margarine is created by slowly bubbling hydrogen through liquid vegetable oil, where it solidifies to become a semi-solid spread. Emulsifiers are then introduced to remove the lumpy bits, and a natural dye is applied to remove the inherent off-white colour. Delicious.

But just because margarine's production sounds more chemical than it does #cleaneating, doesn't mean it's bad for you.

Energy in, energy out

A curious fact about the margarine vs. butter debate is that they both roughly contain the same kilojoules or calories per 100g. This means if you're counting the calories to lose weight, it doesn’t really matter which you choose provided you eat either (or neither) in moderation.

Kara Landau, aka Travelling Dietitian, says that despite the relatively similar energy profiles of the two spreads, she recommends unsalted butter to those still wary of margarine.

"Based on the ingredients list you will find many margarines or 'blended' oil varieties have a number of emulsifiers and other additives, which may have an effect on our gut health," says Landau.

"This link is still being assessed, and therefore for some, taking the precautionary route and sticking with a natural unsalted butter may feel preferable."

A tale of two fats

Where the margarine vs. butter debate really opens up is the amount and type of fat found in each. Butter contains a large amount of saturated fat (more than 50 percent of butter is pure saturated fat) and margarine contains a large amount of polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat (more than 50 percent as well).

So what's the difference?

Saturated fat is common in many household foods like meat and cheese, and is solid at room temperature (take bacon grease for example).

Polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, and are commonly referred to as "good fats". Examples of these can be found in olive oil, peanut oil, most nuts and some seeds.

Saturated fat (when consumed in excess) has long been linked to an increase in heart disease, but recent research has muddied this relationship.

Gilbert recommends that if you're worried about the levels of saturated fat in your diet, go with the margarine.

"Butter is high in saturated fat – which is linked to coronary disease – whereas the saturated fat in margarine is quite low," says Gilbert.

But Landau says the saturated fat in butter can actually make you feel fuller for longer, making you eat less overall.

"As a positive for butter, there are naturally occurring fat-soluble vitamins inside butter which are important for healthy hormone regulation, and the saturated fats present actually aid with satiety for many people, leading to less of a need to overeat," she says.

As a side note, many people avoid margarine due to the perceived amount of "trans fat" present in the spread. Both Landau and Gilbert dispute this, saying trans fat in Australian margarines has long been removed, and shouldn’t factor in your decision.

The bottom line

By now your delicious crispy piece of toast has wilted and cooled as you dissected the nutrition panel on each of your spreads.

To get to the bottom of this, both experts were asked what spread they would use on a single slice of toast, provided it was an equal and moderate amount.

Gilbert says that if you're otherwise eating a healthy diet, and you use less than a teaspoon, it doesn't really matter.

"If there is no history of heart disease in your family, and you yourself don’t have a history of heart disease, it doesn’t matter whether you choose butter or margarine on your toast – as long as it's in moderation," says Gilbert.

"If you do have that history and are worried about the amount of saturated fat in your diet, choose margarine."

Landau, on the other hand, recommends choosing a natural unsalted butter if you must, but offers a few suggestions for guilt-free alternatives.

"I personally select other spreads or oils all together when having a slice of toast," says Landau.

"I go for ones that ultimately provide more nourishment without any of the negative effects, such as avocado, natural hummus or almond butter, or extra virgin olive oil."

More from 9Coach

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon