Butter vs Margarine – Why I Trust Cows More Than Chemists

Woman Eating Buttered ToastThere is a massive amount of nutrition misinformation on the internet.

Even the professionals themselves often say things that challenge common sense and don’t seem to have a scientific basis.

For example, when they tell people to replace butter with factory-made margarine…

The Difference Between Butter and Margarine

Butter and margarine serve the same purpose. They are used for cooking, baking and as spreads.

Butter has been a dietary stable for centuries.

It is made by churning the fatty portion of cow’s milk until it turns into the final product… butter. That’s it.

Margarine is totally different. It is a highly processed food that was invented to replace butter. The primary ingredient is vegetable oil along with emulsifiers, colorants and various artificial ingredients.

Vegetable oil is liquid at room temperature. This is why margarine is often hydrogenated, which gives it a harder consistency and extends shelf life. Hydrogenation also turns some of the vegetable oils into trans fats.

Butter is Loaded With Saturated Fat and Cholesterol

Cow

Butter has been demonized by the media and nutrition professionals because it contains large amounts of both saturated fat and cholesterol.

But new studies show that this actually doesn’t matter… despite decades of anti-fat propaganda.

A large review study published in 2010 looked at 21 studies that included a total of 347.747 participants (1).

They found absolutely no association between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. Other studies lead to the same conclusion (2, 3).

Eating saturated fat actually improves the blood lipid profile. It raises HDL (the “good”) cholesterol and changes the LDL from small, dense LDL (very bad) to Large LDL, which is benign (4, 5, 6, 7, 8).

Eating cholesterol rich foods like eggs leads to the same improvements in blood lipid profiles. The LDL pattern improves and HDL goes up (9, 10).

Unless you have a medical condition like familial hypercholesterolemia, then there is NO reason to fear saturated fats or dietary cholesterol.

Bottom Line: Neither saturated fat nor dietary cholesterol harm the blood lipid profile. They raise the good (HDL) cholesterol and change the LDL cholesterol to a benign subtype that is not associated with heart disease.

Margarine Contains Vegetable Oils and Trans Fats

Toast With Margarine

The main ingredients in most margarines are vegetable oils like soybean or safflower oil.

Vegetable oils are mostly unsaturated, which is a problem because unsaturated oils are liquid at room temperature and cannot be used as spreads.

To remedy this problem, the vegetable oils are subjected to a hydrogenation process. This involves exposing the oils to high heat, high pressure, hydrogen gas and a metal catalyst. Disgusting, yes.

This process prolongs the shelf life of the products and makes them harder at room temperature. Hydrogenation makes unsaturated fats resemble saturated fats.

Hydrogenated fats are also known as trans fats, which are highly toxic and strongly associated with heart disease (11, 12).

Historically, margarine used to be loaded with trans fats. Today there are some trans-fat free varieties available.

However, be aware that manufacturers can label their products trans-fat free as long as there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving.

To make sure you’re avoiding trans fats, read labels. If it says “hydrogenated” anywhere on the ingredients list, then avoid it.

But even though a margarine is genuinely trans-fat free, it can still be bad for you.

The vegetable oils used in them, such as soybean and safflower oil, may be seriously harmful on their own.

These types of oils are the biggest sources of polyunsaturated Omega-6 fatty acids in the diet, which we’re already eating too much of (13, 14).

Several studies link excess consumption of polyunsaturated vegetable oils with cancer, violence and the very thing margarine is supposed to prevent… heart disease (15, 16, 17, 18).

Bottom Line: Margarine is loaded with vegetable oils and (sometimes) trans fats. Excess consumption of these fats is associated with many serious diseases, including heart disease.

The Awesomeness of Grass-Fed Butter

Butter

The health effects of animal foods depend on what the animals ate.

Cows eat grass in their natural environment. But in many countries, they are fed grain-based feeds.

Butter from grass-fed cows is much more nutritious. It contains more:

  • Vitamin K2 – This little known vitamin plays a role in preventing many serious diseases, including cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease (19, 20, 21, 22).
  • CLA – Studies show that this fatty acid can have anti-cancer properties and help lower body fat percentage in humans (23, 24, 25).
  • Butyrate – A short-chain fatty acid found in butter which is also produced by bacteria in the intestine. It can fight inflammation, improve digestive health and may help prevent weight gain (26, 27, 28).
  • Omega-3 – Grass-fed butter has less Omega-6 and more Omega-3, which is important because most people are already eating way too many Omega-6 fatty acids (29).

Given that grass-fed butter contains a lot more heart-healthy nutrients than butter from grain-fed cows, the health effects of butter can vary drastically depending on what the cow ate.

Bottom Line: Butter from grass-fed cows contains much greater amounts of heart-healthy nutrients than butter from grain-fed cows.

Margarine and Blood Lipids

Butter Curls

Alright, now we know the difference between butter and margarine. Let’s look at the actual studies.

I’d like to point out that margarine does lower some risk factors for heart disease, especially if it is enriched with plant sterols or stenols.

These margarines lower total and LDL cholesterol in the short term, but they may also decrease HDL (the good) cholesterol (30, 31, 32, 33, 34).

However, it’s important to stress the difference between risk factors and hard outcomes.

Just because something improves a risk factor for heart disease, such as LDL, it does NOT mean that it will actually lead to a reduction in heart disease, which is the outcome that matters.

There are many drugs that have been proven to lower LDL cholesterol, but not all of them actually lead to a reduction in heart disease.

That’s because there’s a lot more than just cholesterol that causes heart disease.

The studies that look at hard outcomes like heart attacks show that butter is either benign or healthy, while margarine increases the risk.

Bottom Line: It is true that margarine lowers total and LDL cholesterol in the short term. However, it also lowers HDL (the good) cholesterol. Reducing cholesterol doesn’t necessarily reduce the risk of heart disease.

When Measuring Hard Outcomes, Butter Comes Out Ahead

Doctor Pointing His Finger

When looking at actual heart attacks, there is literally no evidence that butter causes harm.

A large review published in 2013 looked at 16 prospective studies.

High-fat dairy consumption was found to lower the risk of obesity, with no consistent association between dairy fat, cardiovascular disease or other metabolic diseases (35).

However, the effects seem to vary between countries.

In the Nurses’ Health Study (United States), dairy fat increased the risk of heart disease, while in an Australian study it was found to lower heart disease risk by a whopping 69% (36, 37).

This drastic difference is probably caused by different feeding practices. Cows in the U.S. are mostly grain-fed, while cows in Australia eat grass and therefore have more Vitamin K2 and Omega-3s… both of which protect against heart disease.

The Framingham heart study was an observational study that went on for 20 years. In this study, margarine was found to drastically increase the risk of heart disease, while butter had no effect (38).

Butter vs Margarine

Photo Source: Stephan Guyenet.

It seems pretty clear that observational studies don’t support the idea that butter causes heart disease.

But such studies can not really prove anything, they can only show that two factors are correlated. Correlation does not equal causation.

However, we also have evidence from randomized controlled trials… which are the gold standard of research.

In the Sydney Diet Heart study, 458 men that had recently had a cardiac event were randomized into two groups.

One was instructed to reduce saturated fats (includes butter) and increase their intake of polyunsaturated vegetable oils, which includes margarine (39).

The group increasing their vegetable oil (and margarine) consumption was 62% more likely to die and 70% more likely to diet of heart disease. The blue line is the group eating the “heart-healthy” *cough* diet.

Sydney Diet Heart Study and Risk of Death

This makes perfect sense given that both trans fats and vegetable oils have been associated with cardiovascular disease and death (40, 41, 42).

Bottom Line: Studies show that margarine increases heart disease risk, while butter may be benign. Butter from grass-fed cows may even be protective.

Take Home Message

Given that nutrition professionals have been warning us about butter and pushing us towards processed industrial margarine, you would think that there was at least a hint of evidence suggesting this to lead to better outcomes.

Alas, no. Despite margarines being able to lower total and LDL cholesterol in the short term, they actually lead to the opposite effect when measuring hard outcomes.

I highly recommend that you avoid processed pseudo-foods like margarine. Use real, grass-fed butter instead.

When it comes to food, a cow is more trustworthy than a chemist.

11 Comments

  1. Maryann says:

    Why anyone would prefer margarine over butter is a mystery to me. Try leaving a stick of margarine outside over night. The next morning you will find that rodents will not touch it. Reason being, it is two molecules away from being plastic! I heard this on the Healthy, Wealthy and Wise radio show. I am not about to put my butter outside overnight, I am sure it will disappear!

  2. I try to use olive oil but prefer butter. How do you feel about canola oil vs vegetable oil? Love your articles.

  3. I love my butter but I have tried and tried to tell my mum and other family members but they are so brainwashed by the low fat rubbish that they won’t listen to me. I am going to forward this article to them, we live in Australia and I was really glad to see that eating our butter can lower heart attack risk. Another great article Kris, I am in the process of giving up sugar and wheat, you are my inspiration. Thanks again.

  4. Karen G says:

    For those who cannot tolerate milk products, lard is another fat that has had an unfair bad press in the last few decades, and should never have been replaced with margarine. The problem is finding organic lard because it’s now so unpopular, nobody is making anything but the cheapest kinds (at least here in the UK). And since animals’ bodies (including ours) store toxins in fat cells, I’ve read that it’s important to buy animal fats from organic or free range sources.

  5. I have just recently discovered your articles, Kris, and I am loving them thus far.

    I have also recently read that margarine is close to being plastic, and a detailed description of the horrid process used to make it. Yuck. I never ate it though, thankfully.

    I have a couple of questions. What is your opinion on products like Earth Balance non-dairy buttery spread?

    Also, I use safflower oil as an external moisturizer, though I never consume it in any way. Wondering if those harmful fatty acids can absorb into the skin and causes health issues…

  6. I use soy-based margarine (vegan). Any other options for me?

  7. I have a problem with this paragraph:

    “Eating saturated fat actually improves the blood lipid profile. It raises HDL (the “good”) cholesterol and changes the LDL from small, dense LDL (very bad) to Large LDL, which is benign (4, 5, 6, 7, 8).”

    The studies cited do not indicate that saturated fat improves the blood lipid profile! The studies cited mention the difference between large LDL and small LDL, but they all mention also that saturated fat intake decreases HDL (the good cholesterol).

    It is true that replacing high-fat foods with carbohydrates (especially if they are refined) is probably not beneficial on the lipid profile, but this does not mean that extra saturated fat is!

    I find the quality of most of the evidence on this post impressive. But I encourage us all to read the studies instead of simply the statements made about them.

    • These studies are mostly looking at the LDL distribution pattern, I should have included some that focus on HDL directly.

      Check out refs 39-42 on this page: http://authoritynutrition.com/it-aint-the-fat-people/

      Saturated fats raise HDL and they change the LDL pattern from small (pattern B) to large (pattern A). Having high HDL and a preponderance of large LDL is associated with a reduced risk of CHD, that is why I say that they improve the lipid profile if anything.

      I’m not saying that anyone should eat “extra” saturated fat, just that including them as parts of a balanced real-food based diet is perfectly healthy.

  8. Keith Hughan says:

    I have for many years now studied nutrition and and oh boy, so many experts out there! Some good, some bad.

    I do believe in that the more processed the food is more and likely it will be bad for you. I also believe when it come to milk and any other product that comes from it is not meant for us.

    Human milk is completely different from cows milk as cows milk is to goats milk and so on. I cannot find any other creature on this planet that carries on drinking milk after it has weaned. – please don’t mention cats and dogs, ha!

    Yes! I do support butter is better than oil spreads, but it doesn’t mean it is good or right for us. Check out a site called – notmilk.com

    Dioxins play a very big role in your life – grant you ‘man made’ and therefore the better the quality the better of we are. But it still comes down to nature on how we feed ourselves. I can see myself if no books were around, knowledge, then it would be more feasible to pick and eat not kill and eat, and definitely not to go up to a cows udder and nick the milk : -)

    More carbs are not the way to go and fats play so much of a role in our bodies, more so in men I think, sperm count etc. And one such UK Dr, cannot remember his name now, published an article called white death = sugar, while 2 Americans believed it was the opposite = fat back in the 60′s I believe. This study was to change governments thinking and hence 2 against 1 changed the rules that almost stood to this day, eat less fat and more carbs.

    Since then it has now been reversed and poor old doctor who was against the high carbohydrate diet didn’t live to see that he was right.

    So I agree with the column when it comes to fat but milk and its derivatives, no. But that’s my opinion. Does that mean I never eat butter or drink milk? I would be telling you porky pies if I said no! I do but rarely as with meat as well. If someone invites me to a roasty, I’m not gonna preach vegetarianism, mmmm! I am going to enjoy my dinner, roast lamb and mint sauce, I’m dribbling!

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