Forget political debates – the choice before us today is between two competing spreads… margarine and butter.
Let’s cut through all the hoopla to settle the debate over which one is the healthier choice.
Margarine is a French invention. In 1813, French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul discovered a new fatty acid — which he named after the Greek word for “pearly,” margarites.
However, margarine as we know it wasn’t invented until Emperor Napoleon III offered a prize for anyone who could come up with a cheap butter substitute to feed the navy and his lower-income subjects. That’s when French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès rose to the challenge and won his ruler’s prize in 1869 by developing a process for creating an acceptable butter substitute churning beef tallow with milk.
Mège-Mouriès dubbed his new product “oleomargarine.” Yet, it was far from a runaway best-seller so, in 1871, the chemist appealed to a Dutch company for help marketing and distributing his butter substitute. The clever Dutch realized that the pearly white spread needed some tinting so it looked more like real butter. They achieved this by adding yellow food dye.
Although the inventor of margarine died a pauper in 1880, the clever Dutch company thrived. We know it today as Jurgens, now owned by Unilever.
Butter, on the other hand, is as old as cannabis beer, dating back 10,000 years ago! Around the time our ancestors started domesticating animals.
The first historical mention of butter exists on a limestone tablet that gives a recipe for making butter – 4,500 years ago. It must have been an important foodstuff for someone to go to all that trouble in order to preserve the how-to instructions.
The word is thought to come from the Greek word bout-tyron which means “cow cheese” or it may trace its origin back to the Scythians who were a people who raised cattle.
Over the centuries and throughout many lands, butter has been used in religious rites, as a lamp fuel, cosmetic skin-smoothing cream, hair grease, topical skin protection from the cold, a cure for eye conditions, preventative for kidney and bladder stones, and in poultices as an anti-bacterial and burn treatment.
Margarine sales in the United States took off during World War II when food was rationed and butter was scarce. Its popularity peaked around 1980 and has since fallen below that of rival butter.
“Dietary recommendations to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) have focused on reducing intake of saturated fatty acids (SFA) for more than 50 years,” according to a 2017 study that found “strong evidence that replacing dietary SFA with unsaturated fatty acids, both MUFA and PUFA, and carbohydrates from fiber-rich whole grains benefit cardiovascular health.”
The prevailing wisdom handed down from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is that saturated and trans fats are linked to heart disease and therefore ought to be avoided:
“To reduce your risk for heart disease, cut back on saturated fat and trans fat by replacing some foods high in saturated fat with unsaturated fat or oils.”
The thinking behind the “margarine good, butter bad” argument was explained very well by the Mayo Clinic:
“Margarine is made from vegetable oils, so it contains unsaturated ‘good”‘fats — polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These types of fats help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or ‘bad,’ cholesterol when substituted for saturated fat.”
The American Heart Association (AHA) is also anti-butter and links eating it to cardio conditions:
“The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats – which are found in butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods. Decades of sound science has proven it can raise your ‘bad’ cholesterol and put you at higher risk for heart disease.”
The AHA recommends consuming “soft, trans-fat-free spreads instead of regular butter or stick margarine.” This is all well and good, but the problem is that some types of margarine have unhealthy trans fats. The presence of any partially hydrogenated oils means that the margarine has a tiny bit of trans fat (less than 0.5 gram per serving).
Butter comes from one ingredient: cow’s milk (or cream). Your great-grandparents might have owned a butter churn to make DIY deliciousness. Making butter is simple: churn or shake the milk until it becomes semi-solid. By law, butter must contain a minimum of 80 percent milk fat by weight. It takes about 11 quarts of milk to make one pound of butter.
Butter, then, is made from animal fat, so it contains more saturated fat content than margarine. But how harmful are saturated fats, really?
Weighing in on the other side of the debate on saturated fat is a research team that claimed, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, that “saturated fat does not clog the arteries: coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition, the risk of which can be effectively reduced from healthy lifestyle interventions.”
According to the second group of scientists, atherothrombosis – hardening of the arteries – is “the real killer,” not saturated fat.
In contrast, butter is high in vitamin A. One tablespoon provides just over 7 percent of the daily need. Vitamin A reduces night blindness and visual decline brought on by aging. That same tablespoon also provides:
- Calories – 102
- Total Fat – 12g (grams): Saturated Fat 7.3g, Trans Fat 0.5g grams, Polyunsaturated Fat 0.4g, Monounsaturated Fat 3g
- Cholesterol – 31mg
- Potassium – 3.4mg
- Protein – 0.1g
Did you know that one tablespoon of margarine has the same amount of calories as its butter equivalent? It’s true. Margarine is even higher in vitamin A than butter, delivering 10 percent of the daily need. And even though margarine as almost the same amount of total fat (11g) when compared to butter, check out how it breaks down:
- Saturated Fat 2.2g grams, Trans Fat 2.1g grams, Polyunsaturated Fat 3.5g, Monounsaturated Fat 5.5g
Margarine has no cholesterol and no protein.
As you can see, the great debate between margarine and butter boils down to whether or not saturated fat is a heart stopper. Until future research reveals the truth behind this commonly-held belief, remember the immortal words of America’s greatest French chef, Julia Child, who quipped:
“With enough butter, anything is good.”