Did you hear the one about margarine being one molecule away from plastic and that it shares more than 20 ingredients with paint? I did and it was news to me! It also prompted me to research the little cooking devil and other spreads. Turns out none of it is true and that it’s not so devilish after all. In fact, the same could be said about butter and a variety of other foods. You see, one little variation in structure does not make a near miss a full match. We as humans are only a few DNA links away from chimpanzees but that doesn’t make us the same.
So why the rumors though and which one is better: butter or margarine? Let’s start with the rumors, which may stem from the fact that margarine’s origins came from a French chemist.
I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S NOT BUTTER
Margarine is the imitation butter spread of all imitations and was created in France when chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries developed a substance called oleomargarine in response to Emperor Napolean’s request that someone make a butter alternative suitable for the armed forces and lower classes way back in 1869. Who would have ever imagined margarine came from the French, the culinary connoisseurs? Say it ain’t seaux!
At its inception, the principal raw material in margarine was beef fat, but in 1871 Henry W. Bradley of New York created and patented his process of making margarine using vegetable oils. Years later during the Great Depression and World War II, the supply of animal fat was greatly reduced and a shortage of butter occurred, both paving the way for the popularity of margarine, or as it was often called, “oleo.”
Funny thing is that this non-dairy product is always found in the dairy case. The primary ingredients in it today are vegetable oil, water, salt, and emulsifiers. Since it is made from vegetable oils, it contains the “good” unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.
There are many brands of margarine though and their contents vary. One thing that doesn’t is true margarine’s fat content, which is required by law to be 80 percent. Any item with less than that is considered a “spread” and can have fat content ranging anywhere from 10 to 90 percent. In general, the lower fat content the higher percentage of water and lower percentage of vegetable oil.
Margarine may not have the saturated fat that butter does, but it often contains partially hydrogenated oils, or trans fats. Not only do trans fats increase cholesterol levels, they lower good HDL cholesterol levels and raise levels of bad cholesterol LDL. The more solid the margarine, the more trans fat it likely contains. This is why stick margarines usually have more trans fats than tub margarines.
Still, many margarine brands that you find on the aisles of your favorite grocer are a bit healthier than they originally were. Most popular brands have eliminated hydrogenated oils as well as trans fats, and some brands boast Omega-3 fatty acids, have low or no salt, and are sometimes made with olive or vegan oils. The oleo of old has come a long way!
BUTTER ME UP
Butter on the other hand, is a true dairy product and is essentially the fat of milk. Through the churning process, butterfat is separated from buttermilk and butter is the result of the cream that is separated from the milk. In the U.S., all butter must be pasteurized, meaning the cream used to make it is first heated to kill pathogens and prevent spoilage. Butter can be either salted or unsalted and you’ll also see “sweet cream butter” on some labels.
Most butter commercially produced in the U.S. is sweet cream butter. This doesn’t mean it’s sweeter or creamier than other butters, it simply means it was produced from fresh sweet cream rather than from soured or cultured cream, which is more common in Europe and other places. Cultured cream is created by adding cultures, bacteria cultures, to the butter before it’s churned, which causes the butter to be a bit more tangy and even a bit sour. There is also “whipped butter,” which means air was added to it to make it lighter and more dense. It also has fewer calories and lower fat content than non-whipped versions.
Since butter is an animal fat, it naturally contains cholesterol and is higher in saturated fat than margarine. And any commercially sold butter in the U.S., whether sweet cream, whipped, cultured, salted or non-salted, must, just like margarine, be at least 80 percent fat.
IS BUTTER BETTER?
Although most would agree that good butter wins the all-important taste test over margarine, what many consider the deciding factor in choosing one over the other is often calories and fat content. Surprisingly, the two contain nearly the same amount of both, about 100 calories and approximately 12 grams of fat.
Some health experts say neither is the “better” choice but if you must, spreads sold in tubs are a bit healthier than either butter or margarine sticks. These vegetable oil spreads usually contain less than 2 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.
The basics? Margarine contains unsaturated “good” polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, butter contains high levels of saturated fat, but many margarines have high amounts of trans fats.
Butter will probably forever be on the list of foods to avoid regarding the risk of heart disease, but stick margarines, with their high levels of trans fats, aren’t far behind. Either, and even margarines free of trans fats and low in saturated fats, are still loaded with calories.
As for substituting one for the other when baking and cooking, it’s generally not recommended to do so, as margarines with lower fat content have more water, which can result in tougher or more watery baked goods.
One option and one that earned the Good Housekeeping “Seal of Approval” are “buttery sticks” from “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.” GH testers were impressed by their taste and versatility, that you can use the sticks just like butter, and that you don’t have to wait for them to soften. Perhaps best of all, they have only 3.5 grams of saturated fat, no trans fats, and 45 percent less saturated fat than regular butter. They also boast plant-based ingredients are a blend of vegetable oils.
Whatever you choose, your goal should be to avoid or at least limit the amount of saturated fats in your diet and avoid trans fats all together. If you opt for tub versions that have less trans fats but not the handy-dandy measurement markings that we all love about sticks, you can sometimes find economical and clever ways to reuse and repurpose the tubs!
WHAT ABOUT SHORTENING?
Did you know that margarine and butter are both types of shortening? What?
Yep. Although most of us think of shortening as that white, flavorless tub of stuff that mom and grandma use every Christmas; butter, margarine, and even lard can be considered shortening.
When pig-fat heavy lard was frowned upon in the cooking world, manufactured fat products were created for baking uses. Originally shortening was synonymous with lard, but when margarine was invented, it too was considered a shortening. The main difference between shortening and lard is that lard comes from animal fat while shortening comes from a variety of oils that are plant-based.
Vegetable shortening as we know it was invented in 1910 by Proctor and Gamble. The company developed the product as an alternative to lard and introduced Crisco to American cooks as a more healthy and digestible substitute for lard or butter. It gained popularity because it was reliable, cheaper than butter or lard, and flavorless.
The term “shortening” originally referred to fats used to “shorten” the protein platelets in baked goods and gluten strands in wheat. It’s that “shortening power” that lumps butter and margarine right up there with shortening and lard but today “shortening” almost exclusively means hydrogenated vegetable oil “vegetable shortening.” It’s meant to lack any discernible flavor, and since it has 100 percent fat content rather than butter and margarine’s 80 percent, it results in a very tender baked good. Shortening is rarely used in other areas of cooking and today the term “shortening” seldom refers to butter and is more closely related to margarine.
GHEE, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT
Healthier alternatives to butter or margarine include olive oil, vegetable oil-based spreads, and something called ghee.
Ghee is a type of clarified butter popular in South Asian dishes. The word “ghee” comes from the Sanskrit word for “sprinkled” and it’s made by melting butter and skimming the fat off the top of it. When cooled down, the result is a creamy looking solid that looks just like butter but doesn’t need to be refrigerated. It can be used much like either butter or margarine but lacks many of the health risks the two contain.
Since it’s made from milk solids, impurities have been removed so ghee is lactose friendly. It’s also known to promote flexibility and lubricate connective tissue, making it a popular item with yogis. It’s many health benefits also include being rich in fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, which promote bone and brain health and boost the immune system. Finally, since ghee converts fiber into butyric acid, it is beneficial in healthy digestion.
HOW SOFT IS SOFT ENOUGH?
Recipes often call for “softened butter,” but how do you know just how soft and how do you avoid the tragic microwave melt down? At all costs, avoid softening butter in the micro as it will more than likely melt too fast and will melt unevenly. Butter will soften at room temperature in about 30 minutes, so if you know you’re going to need softened butter, plan ahead and pull it out of the ‘fridge. Butter is officially softened when it can be easily squished between your thumb and forefinger. You can also test the softness by gently pressing the top of the stick with your index finger. If an indentation remains but the stick holds its shape, it’s good to go. If you can’t press your finger very much, it needs to soften some more but if it’s mushy and soft to the touch, it’s become too soft.
In those dreaded moments when you need softened butter but have only refrigerated sticks, here are three ways to soften it safely:
- Cut it into small chunks as they will soften quicker than a whole stick.
- Place a stick of butter in a Ziploc bag or on wax paper and pound it using a rolling pin. Then remove the flattened version and set it to cool at room temperature.
- If you’re in a real hurry, a warm water butter bath is your best bet. Pour a few cups of very hot water into a double boiler. Put the butter over the water but keep an eye on it so it doesn’t melt. If you don’t have a double boiler, use a sauce pan with a metal bowl inside.
I don’t know about you, but the next time I’m buying butter/margarine I’m certainly going to look much closer at labels and contents. I’ve always been under the impression that butter was better only because it’s been around for so long and is what my mom always uses. It’s “old school” and wasn’t “invented” like margarine was. To me, “invented” sounds more like a science experiment and not food item but I’ve learned that butter isn’t always better. Better read those labels!