With so many different brands and products around these days that it can be hard to tell what you are looking at, let alone knowing whether you should be buying butter or margarines/spreads.
What’s the difference?
Some easy-to-spot differences while shopping are all in the packaging and labelling: butter is typically wrapped in paper while spreads and margarines are packaged in tubs, and you can virtually guarantee anything with the words ‘spread’ or ‘spreadable’ isn’t butter.
Don’t just rely on the packaging or labelling, even the name – it can be misleading, for example ‘Utterly Butterly’, which sounds like a butter product, is mostly vegetable oils and contains only 9% buttermilk.
Butter is made from churned cream or milk – usually cows’ milk, but goat milk and sheep milk is more widely being used for butter products too. This process separates the butterfat from the buttermilk and salt is sometimes then added to make a salted butter.
Spreads are made with unsaturated vegetable oils which are a liquid at room temperature and therefore cannot immediately be used for spreads. To make these oils into a spread a hydrogenation process takes place, in which they are heated to an extremely high temperature at high pressure and pumped with hydrogen gas to make a more solid product.
Benefits of butter
While butter is very high in saturated fat – usually around 80% – the fats it contains (known as vaccenic acid) are much easier to digest than the artificially manufactured trans-fats that are often found in spreads and margarines.
Although butter should be consumed in moderation due to the saturated fat content and its effect on cholesterol, it seems clear to me that it offers many positive health benefits, which may come as a surprise to some people.
Butter typically comes from grass-fed cows and therefore contains high levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been shown to protect against cancer and help control weight gain, and the butyric acid found in butter can be used by the colon as a source of energy.
It is also high in some trace minerals, like selenium and iodine, as well as the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K – vitamins and minerals that are known to protect against heart disease. Vitamins D, E and K are often lacking in the modern western diet.
Various other health benefits may include positive effects on arthritis, osteoporosis, thyroid health and asthma.
Misleading health benefits of margarines and spreads
Margarines and spreads enjoyed a rise in popularity due to medical research surrounding the dangers of saturated fat consumption. They are usually lower in saturated fat than butter, however, although the saturated fat found in both butter and spreads raises LDL cholesterol (known as bad cholesterol), the trans-fats found in margarines and spreads also suppress HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), therefore multiplying the negative effects.
The hydrogenation process has the effect of turning ingredients into trans-fats, destroying many of their original nutritional benefits – it is worth noting that some manufacturers are now producing products that they claim to be low or lower in trans-fats.
When enriched with plant sterols or stenols, spreads can lower some of the risk factors of heart disease, however, some studies have found that excessive consumption of the polyunsaturated vegetable oils used in margarines and spreads may actually contribute to heart disease and cancer – these are oils that are already consumed in high quantities in the western diet.
Some manufacturers include synthetic additives to mimic health benefits of natural ingredients, but, unfortunately, other added ingredients such as emulsifiers, preservatives and artificial flavours, can have a negative effect on health.
More recent research has resulted in an increased understanding of the health benefits of butter and highlights some dangers in connection with margarine and spreads.
The following video by AsapSCIENCE is an excellent insight into Butter vs Margarine:
For me, the manufacturing process used to make most margarines and spreads is unnatural, resulting in the formation of trans-fats as well as man-made chemicals and substances being used, which bring significantly less health benefits than real butter.
For my clients I only suggest butter in moderation, as it does have desirable vitamins and minerals that the body needs, and never margarines or spreads as I believe claimed benefits do not outweigh the negatives brought with the manufacturing process.