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

butter on pancakes

It’s time. Time to sign off of the fake butter revolution, and start putting real butter on your toast. And your mashed potatoes, vegetables, in your baked goods…and anywhere else you might use margarine or a “spread” that makes some health claim or another.

This might be incredibly difficult for some of you, having grown up with the misconception that butter will not only make you fat but will probably kill you with cancer if the heart attack doesn’t get you first.

For me, I had to stop using margarine when I finally learned about the hazards of trans fats. Butter seemed expensive, but so did the Smart Balance and similar spreads. I couldn’t fathom allowing trans fats in my house anymore, though, so I went with butter.

When my husband was diagnosed with high triglycerides (really high, with a family history of heart disease and early heart attacks!), we did what the doctor told us and switched to Smart Balance for the plant stanols, or sterols, or whatever they’re called. (Hubby calls the stuff “plant paste” in their honor.)

I find myself reading and re-reading the ingredients on the tub, wondering how, if not by hydrogenation, do the liquid oils listed become the solid spread within. ?? I actually asked the company about it. It’s a trade secret, so they won’t tell me. But it makes me nervous. Something is telling me there’s some sort of trans fat, or at least something rather unnatural, about those plant spreads.

The one my mother-in-law was told to buy after her heart surgery this summer is called Benecol (and it’s $5 for a tiny tub, too). Guess what the third ingredient is? Partially hydrogenated oil. GAAAAAHHHHH! The nutrition facts, of course, claim “zero trans fats”, but we know about that loophole.

Butter, margarine and spreads

If you’re nervous about the “artery-clogging” saturated fats in butter, please, please read keep reading. I can’t stress enough how we need to drop the margarine, even those that claim “no trans fat.”  Go with something that people have eaten for centuries, and if you think it might cause a heart attack, just eat less of it.

Benefits of Butter

Why Not to Eat Margarine

  • 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.”
  • You must see the stats here about margarine vs. butter and heart disease! FASCINATING! Thank you, Food Renegade.

Avoid Those “Heart Healthy Spreads”

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?

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?). Nina 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 baby 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?

Have you made the switch to real butter?

This Monday Mission was first posted in October of 2009, yet readers still pegged it as one of the most important/most impactful missions of all time. It’s also one of my 3 easy changes that won’t cost too much that I think everyone should make TODAY if they’re even thinking about trying to switch to real food.

Coincidentally, I didn’t eat corn on the cob at a picnic because they only had tub margarine available. Corn is kind of delivery vehicle for real butter and real salt, isn’t it? Winking smile

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

Need More Baby Steps?

Monday Missions Baby Steps Back to Basics

Here at Kitchen Stewardship, we’ve always been all about the baby steps. But if you’re just starting your real food and natural living journey, sifting through all that we’ve shared here over the years can be totally overwhelming.

That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and got them all spruced up to send to your inbox – once a week on Mondays, so you can learn to be a kitchen steward one baby step at a time, in a doable sequence.

Sign up to get weekly challenges and teaching on key topics like meal planning, homemade foods that save the budget (and don’t take too much time), what to cut out of your pantry, and more.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. Heather,
      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

  4. Um, if they can mix in saturated fats and call it “healthy,” why can they not just admit that the saturated fats weren’t unhealthy in the first place?
    .-= Rachel R.´s last blog ..Quotable – housework =-.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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…


  7. 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 =-.

  8. 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. =-.

    1. Lenetta @ Nettacow

      Wow, I will have to give the water only method a try! I did try the olive oil instead of canola oil and found it to be fine (though it smelled rather olive-y, the taste was normal). Thanks for posting it!
      .-= Lenetta @ Nettacow´s last blog ..Link Roundup, Making a [small] Profit Edition =-.

  9. 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.

    1. Tanya,
      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.


      1. if a person avoids spreads because of the phytoestrogens, yet still consumes double the amount of phytoestrgens anyways because they eat a ton of soy, flax, etc. They’re no further ahead.
        .-= tonya´s last blog ..rcwant2be: trifecta! #spartans, #seahawks & #huskies all won!!!!! =-.

  10. 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! =-.

    1. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.


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

      1. 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!

  13. 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 =-.

  14. It’s plain old butter for me, Great informative entry!
    .-= Martha´s last blog ..Monochrome =-.

  15. Great post. And kudos to you for giving both sides of the story. I see a lot of posts where bloggers only give the side they believe in so I really appreciate that you linked to the Mayo Clinic and gave a fair balance piece. (even though I agree with you that butter is the healthy choice).
    .-= Kari´s last blog ..Recipe Remake: Low-Fat, Heart Healthy Pumpkin Pear Muffins (That Taste Really Good) =-.

  16. We’ve been using Smart Balance for a couple of years now because my doc recommended it. I’lll have to try the soft butter recipe instead. It definitely sounds tastier.
    .-= susan´s last blog ..Turkey Biscuit Pot Pie =-.

  17. Lenetta @ Nettacow

    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 =-.

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