As you know, I come from a long line of farmers and farmers tend to promote and use their own products. Many of our friends and family either have been or still are dairy farmers so, naturally, we are accustomed to farm-fresh milk and dairy products. Like most everyone I still run the gamut of which is better, natural butter or manufactured margarine. The debate goes on.
Even though they taste very similar, they are very different nutritionally. The main difference is the type of fat in the two. Here is how it breaks down.
Butter is all natural. It is made from milk from cows and consists of butterfat, water and proteins. Although it is pure in form, sometimes preservatives and salts are added to increase the shelf life. Butter is churned from cream until it reaches its solid state. This fact I know firsthand. Whenever I beat pure whip cream I like to get it as thick as possible. One time I pushed my limit a little too far and the whip cream turned to butter right before my eyes. I made butter without even trying. I soon learned that butter is soft at room temperature, liquid at higher temperatures and solidifies in the refrigerator.
Margarine, on the other hand, originated in 1869 as a manufactured substitute for butter. It is prepared from vegetable oils by passing hydrogen gas through the oils to solidify them. Vitamins A and D are added to enhance the nutritional value. Salts, preservatives and artificial color are also added. Margarine has no cholesterol and the saturated fats are less than what is in butter.
Although both are used in cooking, butter usually gets more votes for the better flavor. There is just nothing like good old butter melted on top of popcorn. However, margarine has a longer shelf life. The dairy alternative is also better for baking because of its higher fat content which yields better results such as more tenderness and flakiness in muffins, cookies and other baked goods. One word of caution here, though, whipped butter will not give the same results as regular butter for baking.
Margarine is not recommended for baking since it has as little as 35% fat content. The remaining 65% is mostly water. Many times if you use margarine in cookie recipes that call for butter you will be disappointed with cookies that spread too thin and end up burned.
When we are talking calories, both butter and margarine are the same. Both are rated at about 100 calories per tablespoon. If you choose light butter or margarine you can cut the calories in half.
Whichever route you go, butter or margarine, all the calories come from fat, with none from carbohydrates or protein. Thus, the type of fat is what differentiates the two. Butter is pure dairy fat whereas margarine contains plant-based fats like palm oil and palm kernel oil. Butter may raise a person’s cholesterol but the plant-based oils have triglycerides which are saturated fats. Saturated fats eaten in moderation may aid in healthy weight management but too much can increase cholesterol and the risk for heart disease.
So, it seems that the deck is stacked on both sides about equally as to which is healthier — butter or margarine. They both have their pros and cons. However, there are some middle-of-the-road choices which combine the good properties of both butter and margarine into one product. Yogurt butter, a soft tub butter, and margarine that contain liquid vegetable oil such as olive oil as the first or second ingredient are healthier than stick butter or margarines. Beware of any ingredient list that mentions trans fat because that is the bad boy of them all.
Although all butter and margarine provide fuller flavor to foods, generally they both provide a fuller waistline also. Whether spreading on your morning toast or muffin or using it for cooking and baking, there are healthy alternatives for using neither butter nor margarine. Here are a few:
1. Mashed avocados are perfect emulsifiers in muffins, cookies, cakes and pie crusts. Even though it provides the same consistency as a dollup of butter, it has less calories and healthier fats.
2. Apple butter can be swapped out for butter in baked goods and oatmeal. It contains nothing more than the goodness of the apple and you know what they say about an apple a day …
3. Thick, creamy and full of protein, Greek yogurt can be swapped in the ratio of 1/2 cup of Greek yogurt for each cup of butter a recipe calls for. It cuts calories and makes protein-rich and super moist cakes.
4. Applesauce is super emulsifying and bakes up thicker and moister with fewer calories so you can actually have a bigger piece without feeling guilty.
5. Hummus, the Mediterranean chick pea spread makes a great sandwich spread and tastes great on crackers and pita. Use it guilt-free in place of butter, margarine and mayo.
6. You just can’t sing enough praises for olive oil, especially for cooking or pan frying. With its saturated omega-3 fats versus the trans fats of margarine, your heart will appreciate the switch.
7. Canola oil can be used as is in recipes calling for melted butter. It slashes saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium in half. When you swap this for butter you will have muffins and cookies ready sooner.
8. Fruit puree is pure mashed fruit preserves. No added sugar, just wholesome goodness. Strawberry, apricot, raspberry, mango, blueberry, pear or peach puree contain more fiber with less calories and no fat. So, go ahead, spread away on toast, muffins and the like.
9. Coconut oil is great for stir fries. It is high in saturated fats but lacks the bad trans fats. If you are not big on the coconut flavor, try flax seed oil for the same results.
Whether choosing butter or margarine, it is a personal choice that each one must weigh with regard to their personal health. It is good to know there are different choices out there so that everyone can find what is right for them.