Is margarine really better than butter?

Dear Alice,

Why is margarine better than butter when margarine is just oil that is hydrogenated, which means that extra hydrogen atoms are added to oil (liquid) to make it firm? If oil is hydrogenated into butter, there would be no difference between butter and margarine because they would both be saturated fats with single bonds and the same number of hydrogen atoms. Is margarine really better than butter?

— Baffled over butter

Dear Baffled over butter, 

You may be baffled over butter, but it sounds like you've got a good grip on chemistry! Some of the margarines sold in stores today are still made from oil that has been infused with hydrogen atoms, firming it up into a semi-hard or solid form at room temperature. This process is known as hydrogenation, and it allows the margarine to contain less saturated fat than butter. Hydrogenation also forms something known as trans-fat, which actually does more damage to your body than saturated fat. Thanks to the 2015 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban on artificially created partially hydrogenated oils, products tend to have little to no trans-fat these days. Moreover, butter in the US is required to be made purely from milk or cream with a minimum of 80 percent milkfat. The American Heart Association recommends that folks choose soft margarine instead of butter when they have the option because of the lack of cholesterol or trans-fat. Finding a margarine with less than two grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, zero trans-fat, and liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient may be a better option. In either case, it’s a good idea to talk with your health care provider about what’s best for you. 

While both butter and margarine have at least 80 percent fat, one key difference is the ingredients in each of the spreads. Margarine can be made from a mixture of plant, animal, or marine oils and fats; however, butter must be made from either milk or cream. From a nutrition standpoint, butter and margarine tend to have similar amounts of total fat, but margarine and other butter substitutes tend to have less saturated fatty acids and cholesterol and more polyunsaturated fatty acids. Butter and margarine tend to have similar amounts of other vitamins and minerals like sodium, calcium, and vitamins A, E, and D regardless of the type of spreadable fatty condiment. 

When trying to decide which condiment is better for your health, it can be helpful to consult with a health care provider and read the Nutrition Facts labels because there can be many differences between and within product types. Traditional butter, margarine, tub products, sticks, and squeeze products can all vary greatly in nutrient make up. For example, in just margarine, margarine-like tubs, and squeeze products, saturated fat levels can range from 5 to 25 percent of your recommended Daily Value. When in excess, both saturated fat and cholesterol can raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is the type of cholesterol that can build up and create blockages in the blood vessels. 

If you have more specific questions or. concerns about what foods would be right for you to incorporate to create a well-rounded eating plan, it might be butter for you to speak with a dietitian or health care provider in addition to reading between the marg(ar)ins on those nutrition labels. 

Here's to hoping your nutrition choices are smooth as butter,

Last updated Apr 14, 2023
Originally published Feb 11, 2000

Can’t find information on the site about your health concern or issue?