Butter vs. Margarine: Which Is Better For You (And For Baking)?

Which Is Better: Butter Or Margarine?

The debate as to which is better for you, butter or margarine, has been going on for years -- and it's one that probably won't end any time soon. One side prefers the taste of butter and claims it's fine as long as it's enjoyed sparingly. The other side claims margarine is healthier for your heart since it is made from vegetable oil instead of an animal product. But which side is correct? There is a real difference between butter and margarine, but both have their pros and cons.

Butter is natural and it's made from cream, churned until it reaches a solid state. One tablespoon of butter contains 30 milligrams of cholesterol and 7 grams of saturated fat (your daily intake of saturated fat should be no more than 15 grams). Neither saturated fat nor cholesterol is good for the health of our arteries.

What to avoid: It's best to avoid butters that are the highest in saturated fat -- different brands of butter will vary.

What to look for: If you like the taste of butter but want to limit your intake, choose whipped butter, which has about half the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol as regular butter. You can also purchase butter that's been blended with canola oil or olive oil, making it a bit healthier than regular butter -- it has about the same amount of saturated fat and cholesterol as whipped butter.

For baking and cooking: Butter is the best for baking, because it's high fat content (80% fat) yields the best results, such as tenderness and flakiness. Whipped butter or butter-oil spreads will not give you the same results as butter, so do not use them in your baking -- though they may be fine for most cooking.

Pros and Cons:

  • Butter wins for being better in baking
  • Butter loses for having high cholesterol and saturated fat

Margarine of course is not natural -- it's made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil. The process creates a solid or semi-solid spreadable fat that is like butter. Many margarines contains trans fats, which should be avoided because they lower good cholesterol (HDL) and raise bad cholesterol (LDL), increasing your risk for coronary heart disease.

What to avoid: Avoid stick margarine -- the most solid of the margarines -- which has the highest trans fat, about 2 grams per tablespoon (the USDA does not recommend consuming any trans fats).

What to look for: Look for the kind in tub containers labeled "margarine spread" -- this type is less solid and typically contains no trans fat.

For baking and cooking: Margarine is not recommended for most baking since it has as little as 35% fat -- the rest is mostly water. Only use margarine in a recipe that specifies it. If you used margarine in a cookie recipe that called for butter, you'd end up with cookies that spread out too thin and end up burned. Margarine is fine for most cooking though.

Pros and Cons:

  • Margarine (the tub kind) wins for having zero cholesterol, low saturated fat and zero trans fat
  • Margarine loses for being bad in baking

For more information on the different fats that affect your health, visit the American Heart Association.

Watch the videos below to learn more about butter and margarine and get recipes for homemade butter.

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