Margarine is considered a healthier choice than butter, at least with respect to heart health. Margarine, typically made from vegetable oils, contains saturated and unsaturated fats, as well as some nutrients such as sterols, tocopherols, vitamins, and omega-3 fats.1 Until recently, many margarines also contained trans fatty acids, which have been associated with negative health effects. Trans fats have been shown to increase blood lipids and serum cholesterol, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.1–3 The US Food and Drug Association determined that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source for trans fats, are not generally regarded as safe for human consumption, leading to the eventual elimination of most trans fats from the US food supply.4 Most margarine products on the market now have been altered to provide healthier fat profiles and can contribute to fat intake in a more nutritious manner.
Butter, on the other hand, is made from animal fats and is a natural provider of nutritious carotene and vitamin A.5 Carotene promotes cell regrowth and repair, and it has also been shown to protect the body against infections. Vitamin A is easily absorbed and benefits the eyes, skin, mouth, and throat. However, the US Dietary Guidelines generally recommend replacing saturated fat sources, like butter, with vegetable oils high in unsaturated fats.6 Saturated fats can increase low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) which has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Margarine and margarine-like vegetable oils typically contain less saturated fats than butter. It is important to note that margarines vary in their proportions of unsaturated and saturated fats, as well as in their calories. The US Dietary Guidelines recommend that the nutritional facts label should be used to identify and choose products with no trans fat and low amounts of saturated fats.
Substituting butter or stick margarine with tub margarine was associated with a lower risk of a heart attack in a study of 71,410 women, aged 50-79, who were followed for 13.2 years [hazard ratio 0.95 and 0.91].7 Fat intake was assessed at baseline and at year 3 with a food frequency questionnaire and the theoretical effect of substituting margarine with butter was assessed.
In general, butter seems to raise LDL-C risk more than a tub or soft margarine, and increased LDL-C is linked to cardiovascular risk.
- Guillén MD, Ibargoitia ML, Sopelana P. Margarine: composition and analysis. In: Caballero B, Finglas PM, Toldrá F, eds. Encyclopedia of Food and Health. Elsevier; 2016:646-653.
- Zock PL, Katan MB. Butter, margarine and serum lipoproteins. Atherosclerosis. 1997;131(1):7-16.
- Liu Q, Rossouw JE, Roberts MB, et al. Theoretical effects of substituting butter with margarine on risk of cardiovascular disease. Epidemiology. 2017;28(1):145-156.
- Tentative Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils; Request for Comments and for Scientific Data and Information. Federal Register. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2013/11/08/2013-26854/tentative-determination-regarding-partially-hydrogenated-oils-request-for-comments-and-for. Accessed December 11, 2020.
- Pimpin L, Wu JHY, Haskelberg H, Del Gobbo L, Mozaffarian D. Is butter back? A systematic review and meta-analysis of butter consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and total mortality. PLoS One. 2016;11(6): e0158118.
- Key Recommendations: Components of Healthy Eating Patterns - 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. Health.gov. https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/chapter-1/key-recommendations/. Accessed December 11, 2020.
- Liu Q, Rossouw J, Roberts M, et al. Theoretical effects of substituting butter with margarine on risk of cardiovascular disease. Epidemiology. 2017; Jan; 28(1): 145-156.