- A 2016 federal ban on trans fats has reduced the amount of unhealthy oils in some margarine products.
- Researchers say this change has made some margarine products healthier than butter.
- Experts say, however, that both types of spreads can raise cholesterol levels, so it’s important to have moderate levels of them in your diet.
You won’t believe it’s not butter but margarine that may be the healthier choice between the two spreads.
A new study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition suggests that some margarine and margarine-like or whipped butter blends may be healthier than butter because federal regulators banned partially hydrogenated oil in 2016.
The study was not funded by the margarine industry.
Researchers in Minnesota examined 83 margarine and margarine-like or butter blend products as well as both salted and unsalted regular and whipped butter available in the United States in 2020.
None of the products contained trans fats, which are a dietary fat created when liquid oils are turned into solid fats. Trans fats are associated with raising LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while lowering HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Trans fats are also linked to heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Before the ban, trans fats could be found in many margarine products.
Researchers said they found less saturated fat and cholesterol in margarine and butter blend products compared with butter. This means the margarine products the researchers examined are more aligned with current dietary guidelines for heart-healthy foods.
Margarine is still a processed food
Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, told Healthline that margarine and other similar foods are artificial products designed to substitute for butter.
She noted that many of these products meet the definition of ultra-processed. Her personal food rule is to never eat anything artificial because, she says, we did not evolve to eat industrial ingredients.
“I try to avoid them as much as possible, so margarines are off my dietary radar,” Nestle said.
Nestle mentions she prefers butter to margarine, but just in moderation.
“It is real food, minimally processed, with one ingredient: cow’s milk. I prefer sweet to salted butter,” she said.
Watching cholesterol levels
Andy De Santis, a registered dietitian and weight loss expert, says margarine, especially certain specialty margarine products made with higher amounts of particularly healthy oils such as olive and avocado oil, increase a person’s exposure to healthy monounsaturated fatty acids that are known to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
In contrast, he said, “We know that butter contains significant quantities of saturated fat, which has the opposite effect on cholesterol levels.”
“Given that cholesterol-lowering medication is among the most frequently prescribed in North America, it speaks to the fact that exposure to saturated fatty acids (also found in red meat and other high fat dairy products) is not lacking, whereas exposure to monounsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, and their oils) very likely is,” De Santis told Healthline.
“This suggests to me that margarine use is superior from the public health perspective. But for the individual perspective, as the strength and quality of one’s dietary pattern increases, the less relevant it will be if margarine or butter is utilized as the primary choice,” he added.
In other words, an otherwise healthy person with a healthy diet does not, in De Santis’ opinion, need to worry about the distinction between margarine and butter as much.
Portion size still matters
“Regardless of which option you choose, it’s important to watch your portion size,” said Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, the author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim” and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.
“Often, people think that if they eat healthier options, they can eat more, which is counterproductive,” Young told Healthline.
One caveat, said Nestle, is fruit and vegetables.
“You really do not need to worry about how much of these you are eating. The fiber will help you to feel full, so you will, most likely, stop eating when satisfied. And focus on the positive nutrients and antioxidants you are getting,” she said.
One way to moderate portion sizes is to choose smaller packages of margarines and margarine-like products.
Young explains that larger-packaged portions lead to overeating because people pay little attention to the size of their portions, focusing instead on what they are eating.
“It’s important to focus on what we eat along with how much we eat. Both matter for good health,” she said.
So, for example, Young said if you buy a big bag of something, when you open the bag, divide it into single-serving portions.
Young offers additional tips to help watch portion sizes:
- Pre-portion your snacks into single-serving sizes.
- Use smaller dishes.
- Drink water with your meals.
- Slow down to increase mindfulness (and don’t eat in front of the TV or other electronics and screens).
- Plan your meals.
- Fill half your plate with veggies.
“These strategies can help you realize when you’re full and prevent overeating,” Young said.