Why anyone would still willingly eat margarine is beyond me. Seriously. Taste alone should be enough deterrent, but beyond personal taste preferences, there’s a striking difference between the healthfulness of the two foods.
Margarine, even now after everyone knows and understands the word transfat, margarine is still sometimes heralded as “heart-healthy” and the ideal over butter. Margarine is made from vegetable oils – mostly soy and cottonseed. These vegetable oils are processed under extreme conditions: high heat, high pressure and using chemical solvents designed to extract the oil. Vegetable oils are largely comprised of polyunsaturated fatty acids which degrades easily without the added insult of extreme processing during the manufacture.
Polyunsaturated oils are not as heart-healthy as you might think. While it’s certain that some intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids are important to our health (take Omega-3 fatty acids for example), excessive intake is actually linked to chronic disease. Part of this problem stems from the lack of balance in our diet of Omega-3s to Omega-6s. I’ve read that the ideal ratio is 3:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3, but some research indicates that the ideal ratio might actually be closer to 1:1. Regardless of whether or not the ratio is 3:1 or 1:1, we’re not even close as most people eat far higher ratio of Omega-6 fatty acids to Omega-3s. Excessive consumption of these oils is actually linked to cancer, heart disease, damage to bodily organs, impaired growth and obesity.
But that’s not quite all, polyunsaturated fats degrade and go rancid very easily leaving them susceptible to oxidation and high levels of free radicals. When heated, as in the creation of margarine or cooking and baking, the oils are further degraded.
Additionally, most margarines further insult these oils by subjecting them to the hydrogenation process which leaves them more solid at room temperature and spreadable. Unfortunately, the hydrogenation process produces trans-fatty acids which are severely damaging to human health.
Beyond all of that, one must recognize that these oils (with a few rare exceptions) were simply not present in the human diet until the last hundred years and were not consumed to any great degree until the last few decades. Without a doubt, our ancestors had no ability to chemically extract oil from cottonseeds and they certainly had no ability to hydrogenate them.
Butter is an oft-loathed and oft-loved food. Who can deny the deliciousness of that wonderful creamy flavor? Yet, over the past century as the prevalence of the vegetable oil industry has risen, butter has become maligned by the medical community to the detriment of our health.
Butter is an animal fat and, like other animal fats, is largely comprised of saturated fat. Saturated fat has been given a bad rap despite the faulty and inaccurate research indicating that it’s damaging to the cardiovascular system. Indeed the short-chain and medium-chain fatty acids that come from butter offer antimicrobial and immune-enhancing benefits to the eater. As an added benefit, saturated fat is heat-stable meaning that it is not as likely to be damaged by heat and cooking as polyunsaturated fats are.
Butter is rich in vitamins and minerals that are not present in margarine. For example, butter is rich in real Vitamin A – a vitamin that is critical to reproductive health and vitally important to both babies still developing in their mothers’ wombs as well as young children. Butter is rich in Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Vitamin D and the mineral selenium all of which are vital to health.
Beyond the vitamins and minerals critical to human health, butter contains other important factors which convey benefits to our bodies. Butter contains conjugated linoleic acid which is known to fight cancer. It also contains lecithin which assists the metabolism of cholesterol and fat. Speaking of cholesterol, it is a factor that is critical to brain development that margarine simply lacks.
Historically, butter has been eaten for millennia with the most prized butter coming from the cream of cows pastured on quickly growing spring grasses. Indeed, the butter from grass-fed cows is richer in vitamins and minerals than the butter coming from cows kept in confinement and the butter made from the raw cream of grass-fed cows is the best option as it is closest to its original nature and rich in enzymes and beneficial bacteria that would have been killed by the pasteurization process. If raw butter is unavailable, choose butter from grass-fed cows such as KerryGold or Organic Valley Limited Edition Pasture Butter. You can also find butter from grass-fed cows online. (See sources.)
Butter is a natural, wholesome food that humans have enjoyed for thousands of years and it’s deeply nutritive. When wondering what’s best: margarine or butter, the answer is real butter hands-down.