Which one is better for health? Both butter and margarine are water-in-oil emulsion, with fat content (approximately 80%) and water content (approximately 16%). Both contain roughly the same number of calories but there is a raging debate on which one is more nutritious and better for health.

Comparison chart

Butter versus Margarine comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartButterMargarine
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Etymology From the Latin butyrum, which is borrowed from the Greek boutyron. Greek word for pearl margarites or margaris.
History Usage dates back to thousands of years ago. Invented in 1869 as an inexpensive substitute for butter.
Ingredients Butter is made by churning milk or cream. It is a diary product. Margarine is made by emulsifying vegetable oil with skimmed milk or by hydrogenating vegetable oils. It may be a plant product or a combination of plant and dairy product.
Cholesterol High Low
Fat content Butter contains high levels of saturated fat and no trans fat. Margarine contains mostly vegetable oil; High levels of unsaturated fat and trans fat.
Saturated Fat (per 100g) 51g 23g
Monounsaturated Fat (per 100g) 21g 8g
Polyunsaturated Fat (per 100g) 3g 37g
Total Fat (per 100g) 81g 71g
Protein (per 100g) 1g 0g
Types Cultured, sweet cream, raw cream, spreadable, whipped Traditional, blended, hard Low fat, no trans fat, light, light spread
Taste Butter tastes really good Margarine varies largely in taste, depending on brand, but rarely if ever has the full taste of butter

Health and Nutritional Content

One tablespoon of butter contains over 7g of saturated fat. A healthy range of saturated fat is 10 – 15 grams each day. U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends not more than 300mg of cholesterol intake every day. Butter has 33mg cholesterol in one table spoon.

Technically, margarine is partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Margarine contains unsaturated fatty acids and little to no cholesterol; however it may contain trans fat, which causes heart problems. Trans fats not only increase LDL (bad cholesterol) but also lower HDL (good cholesterol). Trans fat are formed during the process of hydrogenation of vegetable oil. Hydrogenation make the margarine hard - in general, the more solid margarine is, the more trans fat it contains. One tablespoon of stick margarine has 3 grams of trans fat and 2 grams saturated fat.

After the dangers and harmful effects of trans fat became known, margarine manufacturers began producing variants that contained little to no trans fat. (A product with less than 500 mg of trans fat in one serving qualifies for labeling as 0g trans fat even though it technically does contain some trans fat.)

Fatty acids in butter, margarine, mayo and various types of oils used for cooking.
Fatty acids in butter, margarine, mayo and various types of oils used for cooking.

Saturated Fat vs Vegetable Oil

In a Wall Street Journal article, author and science journalist Nina Teicholz argues that vegetable oil is far more damaging to heart health than saturated fat, and that there has not been reliable scientific evidence against saturated fat in the last 30 years. That would suggest that butter is better than margarine for health.

Here are two videos that explain the differences between butter and margarine from a health perspective:

History and Popularity

Usage of butter dates back thousands of years. It is also believed to have been used to light lamps for religious rites. There was also trading of butter/ghee as early as 1st century CE. By 1860 it had become so popular that Emperor Napoleon III of France offered prize money to whoever could find a cheaper substitute. That is when French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés invented margarine.

Fearing a loss of market share, butter manufacturers initially lobbied against allowing margarine to be produced. In the U.S. the Margarine Act of 1886 was passed since margarine was artificial in nature. The Act imposed a tax of two cents per pound on margarine and required expensive licenses for manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers of margarine. Then again, when it was found that trans fats in margarine are harmful for health, its production and consumption took a beating. However over the years with product innovations, improved packaging, and smart advertising margarine consumption regained lost ground. Today an average American eats 8 lb (3.6 kg) of margarine per year compared to 2 pounds (0.91 kg) per year in 1930’s. Many popular table spreads sold today are blends of margarine and butter or other milk products.

In the United States, in 1930 the average person ate over 18 pounds (8.2 kg) of butter a year and just over 2 pounds (0.91 kg) of margarine. By the end of the 20th century, an average American ate around 5 lb (2.3 kg) of butter and nearly 8 lb (3.6 kg) of margarine a year.

Jewish Diet

Margarine is especially useful to those who observe the Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut. Kashrut forbids the mixing of meat and dairy products. The Kosher consumer can use non-dairy margarines to adapt recipes that use meat and butter, or in baked goods that will be served with meat meals.




Opinions are divided to this day

Some nutritionists feel that butter has positive effect on health and diseases because it is made of short and medium chains of fatty acids. It has the potential to make one feel full and so stave off hunger. It is a good source of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Health conscious people however, have taken to consuming olive oil with bread or pasta instead of butter.

Margarine came as a substitute for the costly butter. It was seen as a healthier product as it contained no saturated fat and no cholesterol. However, it was discovered that it contained high levels of trans fat which is very harmful for the heart. Today margarine with almost zero trans fat are being made. It is fortified with Vitamin A and D. They are softer and more spreadable variety available in tubs. It has become more popular in USA.


Prices for butter and margarine vary by brand. Current prices of these products are available on Amazon.com:


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