julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

Start Spreadin’ the News: Butter vs. Margarine

Butter and Margarine

I’ve always grown up with the idea that butter is bad. High in cholesterol and fat, it should be used sparingly – if at all – and ever since I can remember our version of “butter” has come in a tan colored tub. In fact, the only time I ever saw “real” butter was during the rare special occasion, when it was served on a saucer in little decorative scoops at a fancy restaurant.

So when I opened Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and noticed the copious amounts of the “B” word, I recoiled in horror. Poor Julia! Didn’t she know the evils with which she was dealing?? Alas, I had to recognize that she was cooking in a different time – a time when things like Trans Fat content didn’t have to be broadcast on a product’s label. Oh, Julia – however did you survive??

So I bought a supply of butter…in a box. This was a first, and I have to admit I snobbily handled it as if it were a dirty tissue, holding it away from myself as I carried it to and from the refrigerator. But then I began tasting these recipes – these wonderful sauces – which owed their delicious flavor to this one magical ingredient. And I started thinking…maybe I was being too harsh. Maybe I wasn’t giving butter a fair chance. So I did what any reasonable person would do. I did an online search for Butter vs. Margarine. Here’s what I found out:

Margarine was first created in 1869 by Hippolyite Mege Mouries of France (*gasp!* FRANCE?? Don’t tell Julia…) in response to Napolean III’s offering of a prize to whoever could succeed at creating a low-cost substitute for butter. The mixture that Mege Mouries came up with, called oleomargarine, was achieved by adding salty water, milk, and margaric acid to softened beef fat. By the turn of the century, the beef fat was replaced by vegetable oils.

Because margarine is made from vegetable oils, it contains no cholesterol. (Score 1 for margarine!) It’s also higher in “good” fats than butter is. These types of fat (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) help reduce “bad” cholesterol, when substituted for saturated fat. But alas, margarine is by no means pure and angelic in its entirety. The controversy with margarine lies with its level of trans fat, largely a man-made fat. Trans fats have been shown to increase the “bad” cholesterol similarly to saturated fats, and they tend to lower the “healthy” cholesterol when eaten in large amounts. (Minus 1 for margarine.) What’s more – trans fats may make our blood platelets stickier. (I hate sticky blood platelets, don’t you?) While no standard intakes of trans fat have been set, one tablespoon of stick margarine packs a whopping 3 grams of trans fat and 2 grams saturated fat.

To recap: Margarine = no cholesterol (good!); high in good fats (good!); high in trans fats (bad!); increased clogged arteries (bad!)

Butter, on the other hand, is made from animal fat, so it contains dietary cholesterol and high levels of saturated fat. When eaten in excess, saturated fats increase the “bad” cholesterol as well as the “good” cholesterol. Despite the fact that saturated fats raise good cholesterol, they don’t raise it enough to solely justify its consumption. Saturated fat intakes are associated with increases in heart-disease risk. A healthy range of saturated fat is 10 – 15 grams each day. Just one tablespoon of butter contains over 7 grams of saturated fat! D’oh!

To recap: Butter = high in cholesterol (bad!); increases good cholesterol (good!); increases risk of heart disease (bad!)

So what’s a girl to do?? I’ll tell you what – check out this comparison chart:

Product Total Fat Saturated Fat Trans Fat Saturated and Trans Fats
Butter 10.8 7.2 0.3 7.5
Margarine, stick (82% fat) 11.4 2.3 2.4 4.7
Margarine, stick (68% fat) 9.5 1.6 1.8 3.4
Margarine, tub (80% fat) 11.2 1.9 1.1 3.0
Margarine, tub (40% fat) 5.6 1.1 0.6 1.7
* Butter values from FDA Table of Trans Values, dated 1/30/95.
Other values from USDA Composition Data, 1995.
SOURCE: FDA http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/qatrans.html

If you ask me, the differences between butter and margarine are a toss-up. Sure, in some ways, margarine seems like a healthier option – but if you’re like me, you find yourself saying, “Ooh, since it’s healthier, I think I’ll have TWO pieces of toast!” and the next thing you know, you’ve consumed just as much (if not more) “bad” cholesterol as if you had just had one serving of butter.

So I say quit worrying so much about a tablespoon of butter here or a scoop of margarine there. I mean, don’t go butter and margarine crazy – I wouldn’t recommend gnawing on a stick of butter the next time you’re hankering for a snack, or sitting in front of the TV scooping margarine out of the tub by the spoonful, or anything. But don’t freak out over one serving of the stuff, either. 

Live by Julia’s motto: Everything in moderation. Including moderation.


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3 Responses to “Start Spreadin’ the News: Butter vs. Margarine”

  1. Mom says:

    I remember holding dandelions under your chin when you were a little girl to see if you liked butter. Of course you did!

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