Butter vs. Margarine Showdown

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of butter. I love the way it tastes. I love the way it makes other foods taste. I love the way it melts, the rich creamy texture it imparts to delectable recipes, and I love that it is REAL. If I wanted to, I could put a cow out to lush, green pastures every day, milk it, and use my haul to create fresh butter in my own kitchen. I can’t create margarine in my kitchen.

Butter from grass-fed cows is arguably one of the best kinds of fats we can eat, but when you tell most people this they roll their eyes. Where’s the science to back that claim up? They ask. Everyone knows butter is bad, bad, bad for you. Don’t they?

Ah. Well now you can point them to a recent study which broke down the results of the 20 year Framingham Heart study, specifically comparing butter consumption to margarine consumption. Guess which tasty, spreadable fat wins?

Butter.

From Stephen at Whole Health Source:

The really cool thing about this study is they also tracked butter consumption. So it’s really a no-holds barred showdown between the two fats. Here’s a graph of the overall results, by teaspoons of butter or margarine eaten per day:

Heart attack incidence increased with increasing margarine consumption (statistically significant) and decreased slightly with increasing butter consumption (not statistically significant). That must have been a bitter pill for Castelli to swallow!

It gets better. Let’s have a look at some of the participant characteristics, broken down by margarine consumption:

People who ate the least margarine had the highest prevalence of glucose intolerance (pre-diabetes), smoked the most cigarettes, drank the most alcohol, and ate the most saturated fat and butter. These were the people who cared the least about their health. Yet they had the fewest heart attacks. Imagine that. The investigators corrected for the factors listed above in their assessment of the contribution of margarine to disease risk, however, the fact remains that the group eating the least margarine was the least health conscious. This affects disease risk in many ways, measurable or not. I’ve written about that before, here and here.

Can this study get any better? Yes it can. The investigators broke down the data into two halves: the first ten years, and the second ten. In the first ten years, there was no significant association between margarine intake and heart attack incidence. In the second ten, the group eating the most margarine had 77% more heart attacks than the group eating none:

So it appears that margarine takes a while to work its magic.

They didn’t publish a breakdown of heart attack incidence with butter consumption over the two periods. Perhaps they didn’t like what they saw when they crunched the numbers. I find it really incredible that we’re told to avoid dairy fat with data like these floating around. The Framingham study is first-rate epidemiology. It fits in perfectly with most other observational studies showing that full-fat dairy intake is not associated with heart attack and stroke risk. In fact, several studies have indicated that people who eat the most full-fat dairy have the lowest risk of heart attack and stroke.

It’s worth mentioning that this study was conducted from the late 1960s until the late 1980s. Artificial trans fat labeling laws were still decades away in the U.S., and margarine contained more trans fat than it does today. Currently, margarine can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving and still be labeled “0 g trans fat” in the U.S. The high trans fat content of the older margarines probably had something to do with the result of this study.

Good to know, isn’t it?

Worried about the saturated fat or cholesterol in butter? Don’t be. There’s no scientific link between dietary intake of saturated fat and heart disease and no relationship between dietary intake of cholesterol and heart disease. None.

So, go eat your butter!

(photo by sifu_renka)

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While I adore hats & happy skirts, nothing inspires me quite like geeking out over nutrition & sustainable agriculture.
My name is Kristen Michaelis, author extraordinaire and rebel with a cause.

Comments

  1. says

    SOOOOOOOO cool! I am a happy reader. My MIL was told by the hospital to use “benecol” after her heart surgery this summer. She is diabetic to boot, and what do I see 3rd on the ingredient list? Partially hydrogenated soybean oil. I nearly died. I recently wrote about butter vs. margarine here: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/10/10/butter-vs-margarine-vs-spreads-how-do-they-stack-up/
    I’m going back in to add a link to this fabulous study at your page!

    Thanks!!! Katie
    .-= Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship´s last blog post …Food for Thought: Canola Oil, a Unique Omega-3…Thumbs up or Thumbs Down??? =-.

    • says

      Oh thanks, Katie! I can NOT believe that given ALL the information we have about trans fats doctors would actually prescribe something FULL of them to a heart patient? Wow. Just wow.

      • Sarah Kingsbury says

        I am new to your sight, and love it. I read it all the time now. My mother-n-law doctor has also told her to stop eating so much butter for the fat content. She switched to the butter spray and margarine. I cannot convince here that these are actually doing more harm than good…it is so sad what are health care system is actually telling people to eat. :(
        Also, I do work at a restaurant that cooks with real butter. Just the other day we had a new employee and a customer at there table asked for margarine. She went to the another employee to ask where to get it, and his reply was priceless. He was like do you know where you are, we do not cook with that. It is not a real food and they can have butter if they want something. It was very cool to see.

  2. Jen says

    I really hope all the butter (mostly grass fed, raw) I eat now will make up for the years of margarine use! My grandfather, father and great uncle all died in their mid-50’s from heart attacks.

    The fact that this data has been around for about 3 decades, and the government and health industry continue to perpetuate the lie is CRIMINAL!!!

    In fact, I just saw an article in Family Circle titled “The Best Diet For Everyone”. “Packed with good carbs, healthy fats and even dessert, this meal plan-created for those with diabetes-is really the smartest way for all of us to eat.” The dairy recommendations per day? Two servings: 1 cup fat-free or 1% milk, 6oz. fat-free plain or flavored yogurt, 1 cup fat-free or low-fat soy milk, 1 cup low-fat or fat free buttermilk, or 1/3 cup dry fat-free milk. Disgusting! There’s not one healthy choice on the list. Some of the healthy fat suggestions (4 a day): 1 tsp. margarine, 1 tsp. canola or olive oil, 1 T reduced-fat mayo, or 2 T reduced-fat salad dressing. Not a sign of real butter anywhere. Grains: 8 servings a day. Like you said Kristen… Wow. Just wow. I really need to quit looking at mainstream magazines. They drive me crazy!

  3. Kyle says

    Wow, that’s great! I’m going to show this to people.

    One question: Shouldn’t the bars be about the same for both of them when they ate 0 teaspoons?

  4. Kitty says

    I love the results of this study but it bothers me that they didn’t show the long term butter results like they did the margarine. If you don’t show both sides of the equation, so to speak, then it seems you’re hiding something. I do eat real butter, and will continue to do so, but I can’t really get all excited when I feel like they were withholding some information. Do you know where I can find it?

    Thanks
    Kitty

  5. says

    We LOVE butter! And we are always looking for the best quality at the best price. No time to make our own, at least not until we retire.

    Publix Supoermarkets, a good quality chain in the Southeast, just starting carrying a store brand organic butter, but I am always skeptical and want to know where my food comes from, so I sent a letter asking. No response yet. But you can read my letter on my blog and also my call to action that more of us write to the companies and retailers we buy from and ask questions and let them know what we want: healthy, fresh, humanely grown and raised food packaged in sustainable, nontoxic containers.
    .-= Eleanor Sommer´s last blog post …Do You Know Where Your Food Comes From? =-.

  6. tina says

    Eleanor – organic is not enough. The butter needs to be pastured. It’s more important to me to have my butter come from cows that are grass-fed.

    Organic simply means that the grains (corn and soy) fed to the cows are organic. Not good enough!

  7. says

    Kitty,

    Regarding long-term results, consider the context. Butter and other naturally saturated animals fats have been consumed by humans for eons (and remember, butter is a mammal milk fat and last time I checked, we were mammals!), but artificial butter/margerine has a relatively short dietary history that begins in the Industrial Age in mid-19th century (for artificial butter made with other animal fats and flavorings) and really takes off in the early-mid 20th century (with hydrogenated plant oils in wha twe know call margerine). I’ll put my odds on the natural fats with the long dietary history vs. the industrially manufactured fats with the short dietary history any day.

    Also, be sure to read Stephan’s entire post on this study, not just the excerpt on this blog. Stephan has a host of posts and comments that discuss the healthful virtues of butter backed by by science (if not by the industries that profit from the processing of commodity and waste products like soybean and corn oil).

  8. says

    I’m a butter fan too. Margarine’s just ‘okay’ but butter is delicious. Depending on what we are cooking we tend to use back fat, leaf lard, butter or olive oil. I wouldn’t say that margarine is ‘evil’ but I’m not fond of it.

    The back fat and leaf lard are from our pigs and 90% of their diet is pasture/hay. 7% of their diet is dairy (whey, milk, cream, butter, cheese…) from pastured goats and cows so that is effectively more pasture. Almost all of the rest of their diet (3%) is pumpkins, beets, turnips and other good things we grow. I have found a lab who will do the tests and one of these days I’m going to send them samples to test for Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Omega-6, etc. Given that our pigs eat so much healthy pasture and their dairy comes from pastured sources I suspect the pig fat and meat will be high in the good fatty acids. It will be interesting to see.

    Cheers

    -Walter
    Sugar Mountain Farm
    in the mountains of Vermont
    http://SugarMtnFarm.com

  9. Huh says

    So, this is replicated customarily in other controlled studies, and yet, margarine is usually recommended over butter because the evil margarine producers control everything, or what?

  10. Frederica Huxley says

    Here we are, two years after this great article, and the Danish and UK governments are seriously introducing legislation in both countries to put a tax on all saturated fats! It beggars belief, but once again follow the money.

  11. says

    Much as I like butter and abhor margarine, I don’t think this particular study gives butter a boost. I read it three times but it still seems to say that those who ate the MOST margarine had the LEAST problem with pre-diabetes, tobacco addiction, alcohol use:

    “People who ate the least margarine had the highest prevalence of glucose intolerance (pre-diabetes), smoked the most cigarettes, drank the most alcohol, and ate the most saturated fat and butter.”

    In other words, I think for butter to look better than margarine, the results would need to be the reverse.

    • Josh says

      The quoted statistics are listed as confounding variables, not as dependent variables. In other words, glucose intolerance as well as cigarette and alcohol consumption, which are risk factors for heart disease, were working against the people who ate butter. So, even if there was really no difference between margarine and butter, margarine “should” appear to be better for you, just from the selection bias of people participating in heart-healthy activities in addition to eating margarine. However, the fact that the butter group is still better for your heart indicates that butter is very much more heart-healthy than margarine.

    • Nik says

      So, you want to say that butter makes you smoke and drink? :)

      Butter is nice but nothing beats olive oil. The oleic acid prevents atherosclerosis even on people with high LDL.

      In Greece we sell extra virgin cold pressed olive oil for 2 euro a Kg wholesale. In supermarkets almost every grade from excellent to terrible is about 4-5 euro per kg in units of 1kg and less that 4 for extra virgin in 5kg containers. Insane. Even Greeks have forgot what good olive oil is. The new generation at least.

      On the other hand, Geeeks will pay triple prices for gimmicks like adding one tablespoon of olive oil to 500kg processed meat product or margarines that are supposed to lower choresterol. It’s all fraud and marketing. The new generation cannot even tell. We need to educate kids.

      Btw, all fatty acids are toxic to cells in great quentities. Oleic is one of the least toxic and palmitic is one of the most (becomes toxic at 1/4 concentration vs oleic). Usually fatty acids are mixed so damage is very low even in extreme consumption.

      Margarines are very unnatural products and the essential fatty acids are not really essential. They are not produces by the body because they are useless, they do nothing useful and they do not provide a survival advantage. Anyone doing calculation about how to get 1% or whatever from this and that fatty acid is probably an idiot. Diet does not with such extreme tolerances. EFA are just another market. Fish oils and all that, every new thing that will save us based on statistics that are not really concrete science.

  12. Roberta at Redefined Foodie says

    When are people going to ask the big questions? Why don’t chickens lay egg whites? Why don’t cows produce fat free milk and margarine? I’m no rocket scientist but I would think it’s because they were not intended to be eaten that way. Whole fats are the best stabilizers of blood sugars. Thanks for the article.

  13. John Shores says

    Why do a lot of people listen to their doctor about what to eat? Doctors of medicine are not doctors of nutrition. They are not doctors of herbs. They are not doctors of diet. Those things are not their focus of study. Go to a nutritionist to learn about food, go to a herbalist to learn about herbs, go to a dietitian to learn about diet.

  14. Teressa says

    Thank you for your page. I’m slowly getting my parents on board with real food. My mom loves butter but can’t tolerate it. She likes smart balance. Is this a good alternative for her? Do you have suggestions that would be safe for her? Thanks!

  15. Edith Livingston Reardon via Facebook says

    Butter as I think margarine is really not good for you. They say it is the same but it isn’t

  16. Kathy Lund via Facebook says

    Yes! Always have, except for a short period right after my husband’s bypass surgery, when we thought butter was bad. Glad I figured it out quickly!

  17. says

    I haven’t had margarine in years. Though for a while I was diggin the spreadable real-butter-that-actually-contains-canola in tubs. Most recently I discovered Kerrygold butter and it’s yummy! Plus it softens nicely/quickly so I don’t miss the spreadableness of the tub butter.

  18. Carmen Tracey via Facebook says

    yes grass fed, worth the extra dollars to know the cows are happy outside eating grass

  19. Donna Mytka via Facebook says

    Butter for many years although raised on margarine :-(
    Grandmother knew better & always had butter on the dinner table …. She lived to be 103 years. She also had a boiled egg for breakfast every day.

  20. Nikki Moore via Facebook says

    I was suspicious of fake butter even before I had any information about real foods! Yay for butter!

  21. Robyn Parker via Facebook says

    I just bought some local butter from pastured cows! It came in this huge lump

  22. Denise McLaurin via Facebook says

    Yes! Just made a 1lb batch of fresh butter on Sunday from our raw milk cow share … followed by ricotta and halloumi cheese. :)

  23. Trish Truitt via Facebook says

    Margarine is plasticized fat. I grew up on that crap and it f’d me up bad. Raw milk and cream are my best friends.

  24. Joanne Airato Merriam via Facebook says

    Organic butter for me and the kids, can’t get hubby off the “smart balance”. :/

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