Is Butter Better?

I’m a fan of the Food Network show Good Eats and on one of the episodes Brown said something that seemed to indicate that butter was a more heart-healthy food than margarine. Is this true?

Thanks for your replies

Kind of. A lot depends on what sort of margarine you are talking about.

A bit of background. Fat can be defined as saturated (in which there are no double bonds between the carbon atoms in the fatty-acid molecules) or unsaturated (in which there are double bonds). Further more, you can divide unsaturated fats into monounsaturates (one double bond) or polyunsaturates (more than one double bond).

For many years, the received wisdom was “unsaturated good, saturated bad”, then it was “polyunstaurates are great”. But it’s not that simple. Becuase a double bond cannot rotate, it is fixed in either a “cis” or a “trans” configuration. “Cis” means the carbon atoms in the chain are on the same side of the double bond, “Trans” means they are on the opposite side of the double bond. Because of the angles of carbon-carbon bonds, a “trans” chain is straight, whereas a “cis” chain has a pronounced kink in it. (This is the best illustration I could come up with, although the molecules shown are not fats - they are the molecules that are involved in vision in the eye. But the shape is the important thing.)

Anyway, the upshot is that “trans” fats, being straight chains, can pack together closer, thus making the attractions between the molecules greater, and raising the melting point. This is why they tend to be more solid.

Back to margarine. Soft margarine has a high degree of polyunsaturates. Hard, or cooking, margarine, is made from oils that have been reacted with hydrogen, which saturates some of the double bonds (hence “hydrogenated vegetable oil”. However, the mechanism used to saturate the double bonds results in “trans” configuration. It is the trans fats that have been found to be bad, in raising the levels of “bad cholesterol”.

Butter has a lot of saturates, but they are mostly the “cis” form, and hence not so bad for you. So in summary, butter is better for you than hard margarine, and foods made with hydrogenated vegetable oils are (IMO) worse than those made with butter. For spreading, though, polyunsaturated spreads are fine.

Here’s a bit of reading, which basically says what I just said:

Sorry for another post, but I just found this table, showing the amounts of trans fat in butter compared with margarines:

**Product              Total Fat  Saturated Fat  Trans Fat  Saturated and Trans Fats**  
Butter                  10.8       7.2            0.3              7.5 
Margarine, stick
(82% fat)               11.4       2.3            2.4              4.7  
Margarine, stick
(68% fat)                9.5       1.6            1.8              3.4 
Margarine, tub
(80% fat)               11.2       1.9            1.1              3.0 
Margarine, tub 
(40% fat)                5.6       1.1            0.6              1.7 

From here:

Apart from the trans-fatty acids bit, it depends on how much you use.

Butter tastes good, and a little goes a long way.

I buy maybe a pound of butter a year and have to store most of it in the freezer.

People who buy margarine buy it in these huge tubs and go through one every month or so.

You very clearly know what you’re talking about, r_k, so obviously this was a slip. Saturated fats are neither cis nor trans - they’re straight chains, while cis and trans refer to the arrangement of unsaturated fats (specifically, which way their non-straight chains are bent).

The jury’s still out on exactly how bad trans fats are. They may in fact be worse than saturated fats, but there’s just not enough information to know for sure. The Center For Science In The Public Interest evaluates foods in terms of the combined total of saturated and trans fats, and margarine has a lower combined total than butter. But if trans fats are indeed worse than saturated fats, then the lower count of saturated plus trans fats in margarine may still be worse.

So it’s not known for sure. What we do know is that partially hydrogenated oils, which are used in an enormous number of prepared foods, are about as bad as any fat can be. On a rough basis, the more solid a fat is at room temperature, the worse it is (this solidity may explain why they are more likely to form solid plaques on your arteries.) Trans and saturated fats are both solid; liquid fats like oils and monounsaturated fats are much better.

There are various heart-healthy margarines around; they are probably better for you then either margarine or butter. But we don’t know anything for sure yet, so the bottom line is that it’s best to limit your intake of butter or margarine, but you might as well stick to whichever you prefer for the present. I use a small amount of butter mixed with olive oil when I fry eggs, but I use margarine on the rare occasions I butter a piece of bread, because I like it better; other than that I try to stick to mostly olive oil, which has clear heart-protective effects. And don’t make cookies or cakes with margarine, because God will punish you for ruining perfectly good baked goods, and people in the streets will mock you and throw stones at you.

Not an accurate comparison. If you bought a tub of margarine, how long would it last?

Yes, thanks for pointing out this error. I should have said “butter contains a lot of saturates, but very few ‘trans’ fats”. Fingers working faster than brain, as ever.

What I do is use butter on toast, margarine on bread (because I hate trying to spread butter when cold), but I check the labels and only buy those that are very low in trans fats. (Here in the UK at least, most margarines now give a figure for trans fat content.)

The best thing you can do for your heart, though, is to avoid baked goods that are made with margarine. If you are baking yourself, use butter. (It tastes a lot better, too!) If buying prepacked foods, avoid those that list “Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil” or “Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil” on the ingredients list. Be warned though - it’s very difficult to find shop-bought cakes or biscuits that don’t contain these ingredients.

Disclaimer: baking yourself is not necessarily good for your heart. :smiley:

But you know what I meant. Coffee please…

Well, as it happens, there once came to be a tub of margarine in my refrigerator.

It lasted until I moved out several years later. By that time, it was a little hard lump.

Trans fats also have the wonderful property of lowering HDL (good cholesterol) in addition to raising LDL. Butter will only raise LDL and leave HDL alone. (Interestingly, the linked page then goes on to recommend margarine over butter for some reason.)

The public is slowly starting to learn of the dangers of trans-fats. Frito-Lay and McDonald’s are both getting away from them in their products. The FDA is requiring all nutritional information labels in the US to start reporting trans-fat content in 2006, I believe.

A factor that can weigh against butter is the amount of fat-soluble hormones and antibiotics that may concentrate in it, especially since dairy cows are typically given plenty of both. How much is in the butter I don’t know, but I’d stick to organic butter if you want to avoid them.

I personally avoid both. I love extra-virgin olive oil. If you need a spreadable fat, you can even pour it into a tub and put it in the fridge, and it will solidify nicely.

I wonder sometimes where the popular opinion that margarine is healthier then butter ever came from. Margarine was originally invented as a cheap substitute for butter, which was (and still is) a lot pricier.

I suppose our society views things that are fake—things that are products of science meant to replace something natural—must necessarily be better for you than the original. Otherwise why would they have invented it?! Artificial sweeteners are a good example of something fake with obvious health advantages over its natural counterpart (that is, if you ignore the possibility of long term effects).

But sometimes these products aren’t invented because they’re better, they’re invented because they’re cheaper. Hence margarine.

Another angle is the quality of the ingredients.

Good butter is purely cream. No salts, colors, preservatives, or anything else. There’s nothing to hide poor quality or slightly spoiled ingredients behind.

Margarine, is well-suited for hiding slightly “off” ingredients. Just add a dab more salt, or “butter” flavor and you’re all set.

I’ve been using Fleishman’s Premium Blend. It’s made with olive oil, and it claims to have no trans fats at all. I’d like to use butter, but I’m leery of the 1949-style death rays from Mrs. Nott’s eyeballs. We all have our limits. :wink:

Margarine is nasty, and originated (not many people know this) as the pus of Satan (true!). Butter is produced directly by the gods; cows are a myth. I would rather feed my eyelids to weasels than give up butter.

I can walk into a house where a cake is baking, and just from the smell I can tell you if the recipe used butter or margarine. I can look at margarine and tell that it’s margarine at a glance, no matter what shape or condition it’s in.

They’re quite simply two different things: butter is for eating and margarine is for throwing away.

I’m pro butter for the flavour.
Fat is good when you want to make good food.
You don’t need much.

The jury is still way out in left field about what actually harms us,
but eating bland stuff for the gamble of good health is certainly detrimental to a life worth living.

There exists a little ceramic kitchen gadget used in France to keep butter spreadable and fresh, it’s a pot you put the butter into, which is inverted into another pot full of water. Change the water once a day, and the butter stays fresh without the fridge.

The medical comunity and dieticians until fairly recently strongly recommended margarine are healthier, because margarine is made from vegetable oil, which is unsaturated and therefore lower in calories and therefore healthier.

I can not imagine why, as one learns in the first semester of organic chemistry that hydrogenated means saturated. But they did.

Keep in mind that some doctors used to recommend that pregnant women take up smoking so that they would not gain too much weight.

I will not allow margarine in my house. If you want to kill yourself, drink single-malt whiskey.

I think margarine and butter are around the same price here.