Butter vs. Margarine vs. “Spreads”: How do They Stack Up?

This post may contain affiliate links, including Amazon.com. Your price won't change but it enables free content & supports our family business.

Fat Full FallIn case you’re not yet convinced to sign off of the fake butter revolution, here’s a little breakdown of your options with some links to further resources.



  • Kelly the Kitchen Kop’s Margarine, Then and Now is an absolute must-read. She quotes from an old book on what “margarine” really is. It’s nothing I want on my toast, that’s for sure!
  • In a study referenced in Nourishing Traditions, p. 286, orphan boys were fed a diet containing either margarine or butter.  The boys on butter grew, the boys on margarine did not. The study was from an older era, and I’m sure margarine has changed its face since then, but the fact remains:  butter was healthy for the boys who consumed it.
  • The other side of the coin:  Mayo Clinic says margarine “usually tops butter when it comes to heart health.”
  • UPDATE:  You must see the stats here about margarine vs. butter and heart disease! FASCINATING! Thank you, Food Renegade.


How is it that you can buy a “soft tub” margarine or “heart-healthy” spread that lists only liquid oils in its ingredients, claims no hydrogenation, yet the contents of the tub are clearly a solid?

butter smart balance

Although I’m not sure I know the answer, I know that sounds fishy to me. Hydrogenation (forcing hydrogen through a fat to change the shape of its fatty acid chain) is an unnatural process that has been proven to be dangerous to our health. Since I can’t find evidence of any natural processes that turn liquid oils into solids, I remain skeptical about the possibility that these spreads could be healthy. I’m not arresting anyone for a crime, so there’s no “innocent until proven guilty” here.  When evaluating a new product, I always take the precautionary stance of “dangerous until proven innocent”.

A New-Fangled Fat Process:  Interesterification

Interestification [sic] is one process that has come into practice since trans fats became taboo. Nina Planck in Real Food for Mother and Baby on the issue:

“The food industry begins with unsaturated oil and randomly inserts stearic acid (a perfectly good saturated fat in beef and chocolate) into the fatty acids. Next, they scramble the fatty acids, which makes the liquid oil solid, and they can call it Trans Fat-Free. …Unfortunately, the evidence so far suggests these fats aren’t good for you, either. …[They] lower HDL, raise blood sugar, and raise insulin resistance.”

I’ve seen this word (can anyone pronounce it?) on some cracker packages and a few other places. Has anyone noticed it on spread or margarines?

More good reading on the subject:

“Heart Healthy” Plant Sterols

I mentioned before that my husband’s doctor recommended Smart Balance or other spreads with “plant sterols” to get his HDL/triglycerides back in check. Hubby never loved the “plant paste”, and now I finally found some info that contradicts the doc (do I thrive on this controversy stuff, or what?). Planck again:

“Plant sterols are phytoestrogens…and they disrupt hormones, which can cause infertility and birth defects. That’s why the Australia-New Zealand Food Authority requires that foods containing plant sterols carry labels warning pregnant and nursing women, infants, and children to stay away.”

*sigh*  Mommy guilt again for my son’s exposure. Praise be to God that we are through with this stuff now that my little girl is eating. It’s certainly possible for a country’s dietary regulations to be wrong (ahem), but if the entirety of Australia is being warned about this, it’s hardly a sideline concern or a niche issue.  I’m avoiding the plant paste from now on. How about you?

A Homemade Spread?

Tammy’s Recipes has an easy recipe (butter, water and canola oil) for a soft butter spread. I haven’t yet tried it, but a faithful reader recommended it at the Monday Mission post. Another reader was quick to point out that you could make it with olive oil instead of canola oil if you want to avoid the possible hazards of canola (coming in a few weeks). That would help my homemade butter be less hard-as-a-rock when it comes right out of the fridge.

added bonusAdded Bonus: This ought to stretch your butter a bit, nice for an ingredient on the pricey side.

Your other option for spreadable butter, as long as you’re going through your butter fast enough, is just to leave it at room temperature. I’ve never had a problem with it going rancid (the store-bought stuff, at least). In college I left some boxed butter out for a very, very long time. Long story about why, but believe me:  you’ll know if your butter goes bad. I’ve never had a worse taste in my mouth, and that was after cooking with it (mac and cheese, no less).

Next up:  Dairy Fats

If you’ve missed any of the Fat Full Fall Series, catch up here.

Click here for my disclaimer and advertising disclosure - affiliate links in this post will earn commission based on sales, but it doesn't change your price.

25 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. says

    Heh, faithful I am! :>) I didn’t subscribe to the comments of that post so I didn’t see the mention of olive oil – I’m thinking it would really come through in the flavor, though if you dig olive oil, that isn’t a bad thing. After I did my search for canola oil, I realized it’s a topic coming up – can’t wait to read what you’ve found.

    I love your little side stories like your butter going bad. Makes me feel better about my “kitchen incidents” which not coincidentally has its own catagory on my blog. :>)

    Have a great weekend! We got a little snow here in Nebraska and I’m anxious to see the 2-year-old’s reaction!
    .-= Lenetta @ Nettacow´s last blog ..Link Roundup – Farmer’s Market Edition =-.

  2. says

    I only use butter too :-) Have bought spread stuff in forever, last time it was in the house my MIL bought it and I might have slightly offended her cause I would put it out by their places and put the butter out for us :-) But I wouldn’t let my kids have the spread stuff! Love all the links, thanks!
    .-= Jen´s last blog ..Chicken Soup =-.

  3. Karen says

    Has anyone tried to use one of those ‘Butter Bells’ or equivalent for keeping butter fresh and soft at room temp? I have seen them on tv shows but never heard if they were a waste of money or not. Was thinking of for use in hot weather or warm climates especially.


    • Katie says

      I haven’t, but I noticed some conversation on them in the comments at Tammy’s recipes spread post – follow the link above.

      • JulieVW says

        I have a butter keeper (which is essentially a butter bell that is a different brand) and I LOVE it! I do have to change out the water every couple of days, but it’s easy to do, and having spreadable butter makes me very happy!

  4. Andrew says

    I’ve been making my own “margarine” for several years now. Two sticks of butter whipped with one cup of olive oil and a tablespoon of lecithin to help the emulsion. When finished, I pour it into one of my old 15 oz margarine containers and refrigerate.

    It does have a bit of olive oil taste to it though. Perhaps a lighter flavored oil… maybe peanut.

  5. says

    So the other day I saw one ofthose horrible “Meet the Buttertons” commercials on TV where they villainize saturaged fats to sell a spread with all the “flavor” of real butter. When they first came out I was pretty indifferent. I’ve always preferred butter and just had a sneaking suspicion that it was better. But knowing what I know now, the commercial made me MAD (and then I kind of chuckled at the reaction they drew from me.)

    As far as solidifying liquid oils w/0 hydrogenation, though, by whipping some oils (such as olive oil) in a blender or other such machines, you can achieve a more solid state. I’m pretty sure that’s how mayonnaise is made. I still think butter is far better, though!
    .-= Melody Joy´s last blog ..Mmmmonday Again! =-.

    • Katie says

      MJ – Mayo uses egg yolk as an agent to solidify; I’ve done it. Olive oil turns solid in the fridge…but I’ve never blended it!

  6. says

    ahh, phytoestrogens…you should read this factsheet from cornell:


    What foods contain phytoestrogens?
    More than 300 foods have been shown to contain phytoestrogens. Most food phytoestrogens are from one of three chemical classes, the isoflavonoids, the lignans or the coumestans. Isoflavonoid phytoestrogens are found in beans from the legume family; soybeans and soy products are the major dietary source of this type of phytoestrogens. Lignan phytoestrogens are found in high fiber foods such as cereal brans and beans; flaxseeds contain large amounts of lignans. The coumestan phytoestrogens are found in various beans such as split peas, pinto beans, and lima beans; alfalfa and clover sprouts are the foods with the highest amounts of coumestans.
    .-= tonya´s last blog ..rcwant2be: gettin ready to head out for the 5 pm #huskies game. go #dawgs. #uw #washington will try to livetweet but will have the d60 snapping pix =-.

    • Katie says

      Thanks for the link. I am very aware of the phytoestrogens in soy products, and I’ve seen warnings on flax (don’t consume too much) and alfalfa and clover sprouts. Wasn’t aware of the pintos though! Hmmmm… You can’t avoid everything, that’s for sure, but something to consume as a health product (only) shouldn’t have other issues.


  7. says

    Thanks for all the info! I, too, appreciate that you mention both sides of the issue, even though I agree with you that butter is much healthier than the other options! :)

    My family has found an even *cheaper* way to make butter last longer; one day when whipping up our “buttery spread” I substituted water for oil and it still turned out just fine! Our ratio is 1/2 water, 1/2 butter….but some people might want to use a little less water to get a stronger butter taste. Two-parts butter to one-part water is very nice. :)

    Just thought some of you might like to know that it’s quite possible to make that spread without oil if you want to. :)
    .-= Amber Sue´s last blog ..I just got it. =-.

  8. says

    We live in Arizona, so I don’t dare leave butter out, and the spread sounds good, but I’m likely to put off making it. I usually just rub a stick of cold butter on hot toast, and find that applies it quite nicely. It wouldn’t help with baking, but it is a very simple fix to the cold butter problem.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Cheap Online Thrills =-.

  9. JulieVW says

    We had been a butter only family – until my husbands last blood test which indicated very high cholesterol – – until the next blood test he’s on one of those spreads.

    I’m curious how your husband’s triglycerides and cholesterol levels have fared with real butter.

    • Katie says

      The physical needs to be scheduled soon – after the hot dogs of summer and before the sweet temptations of December! I feel like it’s the SAT test when I think about the results coming in the mail. We’ve made so many changes in our diets, and I’m just going to cry if the numbers aren’t better… I’ll post about it one way or another, I’m sure!

      Some research says that high cholesterol isn’t really an indicator of heart disease…


  10. Brittany says

    We use only butter. To make it spreadable, I just keep a little bit (usually leftovers from another recipe) in a small container at room temperature. Obviously it’s pretty soft in the summer, and slightly firmer than a ‘spread’ in the winter, but it’s a simple, cheap solution.

  11. Heather T. says

    This just in: Harvard did a ten-year study on fertility and nutrition and found that women who had as little as two tablespoons of margarine (in a 2,000 calorie diet) had a statistical reduction in ovulatory fertility. How crazy is that?! I’m part of the ttc party, and I’m avoiding trans fats like they’ll make me infertile for life. This is scary stuff.

    • Katie says

      Whoa. Shucks, it could be totally unrelated, but who cares? It’s yet another reason to not eat plastic on your toast! Thank you so much for sharing!!
      :) Katie

  12. says

    Laurel’s Kitchen has a recipe called ‘Better Butter’ which reminds me of ‘spreadable butters’ you find on the market. Butter, oil and optional milk powder. Maybe some water in there too whipped up in the blender. I haven’t made it in a bit :”> Anyway if you read the ingredient list of spreadable butters they only list butter and oil so why not make your own especially since, like you, I think the near solid state it stays in at room temp is suspicious.

  13. Amy says

    I know this is an old post but I wanted to share a few things.
    I switched my family over to ‘real food’ philosophy just over a year now. I was REALLY nervous because my husbands cholesterol was high and hid doc was pressuring us to start him on statins. Instead, we opted for no meds and started using grass fed butter, organic lard, coconut oil, and eating only organic foods/grass fed meats at home. (because he travels for work out of state, he still has to eat junk restaurant food a lot..and we are not perfect at home either) We also started taking fish oil daily. After 4-5 months we had his cholesterol checked again. ALL his numbers were now normal. Ha! I am so happy we didn’t do meds!!
    Also I wanted to add that we use a butter crock here. It’s THE BOMB! now we always have soft spreadable butter when we want it and it’s soooo easy to take care of. I will never live without one of these now. It’s a must have!

Take a Bite (of conversation)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *