Butter and Margarine Explained

nutrition | August 19, 2017 | Author: Naturopath


Butter and Margarine Explained

There is a lot of confusion surrounding butter and margarine. Is one better for your health than the other, or should you switch to another spread altogether?

Let’s get the facts straight:


butter and margarineButter is the dairy product - made from fresh whole milk (usually cow's milk). The process of making butter involves separating the cream from the milk, pasteurising and churning until it thickens naturally into butter. The remaining liquid (buttermilk) is drained off. Salt is sometimes added.

Australia New Zealand Food Standards (FSANZ) Code specifies that butter must contain no less than 80.0% milkfat.

Butter is high in saturated fats

Because butter is derived from animal source it is high in saturated fats. High levels of saturated fats have been linked to increased levels of LDL cholesterol and thus may contribute to atherosclerosis, those fatty deposits that can clog arteries and increase risk of heart disease.

For heart health, the Heart Foundation Australia recommends limiting saturated fat to 7% of your total energy intake and swapping butter for a margarine spread made from canola, sunflower, olive or dairy blends.

Saturated fats: an ongoing debate

While most official dietary guidelines around the world continue to recommend limiting intake of saturated fats, many experts believe that saturated fats may not be nearly as bad as previously thought.

butter and margarine 1Some studies have shown that eating saturated fat does not affect blood cholesterol levels, or that lower cholesterol in the blood does not necessarily translates to a lower risk of death from coronary heart disease or other causes. 

However, there is no argument that some people are genetically ‘fat sensitive’ – their body cannot handle high levels of dietary saturated fat and they are more likely to experience increase in LDL cholesterol when they eat saturated fats, or gain weight, depending on the gene variant.

Butter and milk allergy

Milk is implicated in a quarter of severe food allergy reactions. People with milk allergy, which is an immune reaction to the protein in milk, must avoid all dairy foods, butter included.

Butter and lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance is a common inability to break down lactose (milk sugar), which is found in milk and other dairy products, and can cause digestive symptoms. People with lactose intolerance can usually tolerate some lactose in their diet. Butter has very little lactose and small quantities can usually be consumed without causing any symptoms.

butter and margarineMargarine

Margarine was originally created in 1869 as a cheaper alternative to butter. It comes under the category of Edible Oil Spreads, defined by Australia New Zealand Food Standards (FSANZ) as a “spreadable food composed of edible oils and water in the form of an emulsion of the type water-in-oil”, and like butter, must contain at least 80% fat.


The fat in margarine comes from vegetable oil

Margarine became popular in the early 1980’s with the decline in intake of saturated fats. Margarine is purely plant-based, a product of vegetable oils - source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that are supposed to be healthier for our heart.

The problem with margarine is that it is produced by hydrogenation - the process of adding hydrogen in order to solidify liquid vegetable oil into a spread. Hydrogenation creates trans fats. Trans fats are ‘bad fats’, associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

In Australia, manufacturers are not required to declare trans fats on food labels, unless they make a nutrition content claim relating to cholesterol or saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, omega-3, omega-6 or omega-9 fatty acids. Trans fats therefore are not always declared on food labels. Nevertheless, true margarines are hard to find in Australia and there are now available many other softer, non-hydrogenated table spreads. Most margarines and table spreads in Australia contain very little or no trans fats, and less saturated fat than butter.

They include:butter and margarine

  • Butter blends. Also called dairy blends, they are spreads in which vegetable oils, such as canola, are added to butter to make them softer and easier to spread.
  • Oil-based spreads. Usually contain canola, sunflower, olive oil, or a mixture of oils. Canola and olive oil are rich sources of monounsaturated fats, while sunflower oil is predominantly polyunsaturated 
  • Plant sterol-enriched spreads. Spreads containing plant sterols (phytosterols) that are naturally occurring compounds found in plants and are known for their cholesterol lowering effect.

What Should I Eat?

Fat is essential in our diet, but we are told to replace saturated fats in our diet with ‘good’ monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Both butter and margarine contain the same amount of fat (table spreads contain less fat), but very different type of fat. Butter is a natural product but high in saturated fats, while margarine and table spreads are low in saturated fats, but are processed and often contain additives and preservatives.

Whichever product you choose, always read the labels, and only choose a spread that has less than 0.1g per 100g or <0.1%. Avoid spreads made with hydrogenated oils.

If you choose to avoid butter and margarine, there are plenty of healthy, unrefined alternatives:

Healthy Alternatives

​Olive oil. The hallmark of the Mediterranean Diet, high in healthy monounsaturated fats along with antioxidants. Dip your bread in olive oil.

Nut and seed butters. These are spreads usually prepared by roasting and grinding nuts and seeds such as almonds, pistachios, cashews, Brazil nuts, pumpkin, flaxseeds, etc.  These spreads also come in combination. Choose natural, unprocessed without sugar, salt or preservatives.

Pros: a good source of health-promoting fats, protein and fibre, nutrient-dense, a way of integrating nuts and seeds into our regular diet in an easily digestible form, suitable for vegans.

Cons: nuts are highly allergenic for some people. Nuts are also high in energy (calories), so if you are trying to lose weight, limit portion size.

Avocado. Anther source of healthy monounsaturated fats, rich in nutrition and may lower LDL cholesterol.

Hummus. Made of chickpeas, creamy and rich in protein, fibre, and vitamins. Consuming chickpeas and/or hummus may help prevent the development and progression of heart disease and diabetes.

Tahini. Made of sesame seeds, rich in polyunsaturated fats and other health promoting nutrients.



Allergy Unit, RPA Hospital, milk allergy. Available at: http://www.slhd.nsw.gov.au/rpa/allergy/resources/allergy/milkallergy.pdf

Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code - Standard 2.4.2 - Edible Oil Spreads. Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/F2011C00574

Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 2.5.5 – Butter. Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/F2015L00423

Food Standards Australia New Zealand 2014, Trans fatty acids. Available at: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/nutrition/transfat/Pages/default.aspx

Gorrepati, K., Balasubramanian, S. & Chandra, P., 2015. Plant based butters. Journal of food science and technology, 52(7), pp.3965–76. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26139864

Harvard Health Publications 2017, Butter vs. Margarine. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/nutrition/butter-vs-margarine

Heart Foundation, Saturated and trans fat. Available at: https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/healthy-eating/food-and-nutrition/fats-and-cholesterol/saturated-and-trans-fat

Iqbal, M.P., 2014. Trans fatty acids - A risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Pakistan journal of medical sciences, 30(1), pp.194–7. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24639860

Lin, Y., Knol, D. & Trautwein, E.A., 2016. Phytosterol oxidation products (POP) in foods with added phytosterols and estimation of their daily intake: A literature review. European journal of lipid science and technology : EJLST, 118(10), pp.1423–1438. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27812313

Ramsden, C.E. et al., 2016. Re-evaluation of the traditional diet-heart hypothesis: analysis of recovered data from Minnesota Coronary Experiment (1968-73). BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 353, p.i1246. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27071971

Wallace, T.C., Murray, R. & Zelman, K.M., 2016. The Nutritional Value and Health Benefits of Chickpeas and Hummus. Nutrients, 8(12). Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27916819


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