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ZOE Science And Nutrition Summary : Butter vs. margarine: What does science say?

Podcast: ZOE Science And Nutrition
7 min. read

— Description —

Whether you’re frying, baking, or topping your toast, most of you will eat either butter or margarine at some point today. The fact that these spreads are such a staple means that we need to know their effects on our health. And It might surprise you to learn that this impact has changed quite dramatically over the past 20 years. In today’s short episode of ZOE Science & Nutrition, Jonathan and Dr. Sarah ask: Which is healthier, butter or margarine? Download our FREE guide — Top 10 Tips to Live Healthier: https://zoe.com/freeguide Follow ZOE on Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/zoe/ Mentioned in today’s episode: Margarine from Science Direct Margarines: Historical approach, technological aspects, nutritional profile, and global trends from Food Research International Reduction of LDL-cholesterol as a result of the change from butter to soft margarine from Polish Archives of Internal Medicine Americans' per capita consumption of margarine & butter from the USDA Episode transcripts are available here. Is there a nutrition topic you’d like us to explore? Email us at [email protected] and we’ll do our best to cover it.

Butter vs. margarine: What does science say?

Key Takeaways

  • The history of margarine dates back to 1869 when Napoleon called for the development of a low-cost alternative to butter, leading to the creation of the first margarine by Hippolyte Mejmurie
  • In 1902, a German scientist developed a process to harden oils using hydrogenation, making margarine suitable for vegetarians
  • This process changes the chemical structure of the oil, turning unsaturated fat into saturated fat
  • Margarine is made using modern chemical techniques, while butter is made by solidifying milk through churning
  • There have been misconceptions about the manufacturing of margarine, including the presence of trans fats, which has changed over the last few decades
  • There is a debate about whether margarine is less healthy than butter due to the processing associated with making margarine
  • However, the removal of trans fats from margarines has led to the need to find another way of creating hard fats with suitable melting points for margarine
  • The composition of margarine has changed over the last 20 years, making it tricky to compare with older studies
  • Human research studies are important to understand the health impact of butter vs margarine, and population studies are used to compare the impact of different foods on health over a number of years

1. Understanding the Production of Butter and Margarine

  • In 1869, Napoleon called for the development of a low-cost alternative to butter, leading to the creation of the first ever margarine by Hippolyte Mejmurie
  • In 1902, a German scientist developed a process to harden oils using a method called hydrogenation, making margarine suitable for vegetarians
  • Changes the chemical structure of the oil but increases the melting point or makes it a harder fat
  • The unsaturated fat in the oil has now become a saturated fat
  • Unsaturated fatty acids usually make up about 65 to 80 percent of the fats in margarine
  • Margarine is made by turning oil into margarine with modern chemical techniques
  • To make butter, milk is solidified by churning
  • Butter is a saturated rich fat, with about 60 to 70% of the fatty acids in butter being saturated

2. Comparing the Health and Popularity of Butter and Margarine

  • There are misconceptions about the manufacturing of margarine that need to be cleared up before comparing it to butter
  • Historically, margarine had the presence of trans fats, which has changed over the last few decades
  • Debate about whether margarine is less healthy than butter due to the processing associated with making margarine
  • About 60 to 70% of the fatty acids in butter are saturated
  • Margarines have about 70% unsaturated fatty acids
  • In the 1950s, low-priced margarine took over as the most popular spread
  • Butter consumption has remained pretty stable at around four to six pounds per person per year
  • Since 2013, in the States, butter has once again been the most popular option
  • The dip in margarine consumption was largely due to people being concerned about the types of fats in margarine
  • One of the main differences between butter and margarine is the proportion of saturated versus unsaturated fats
  • Butter has more saturated fat and margarine has more unsaturated, mono and polyunsaturated fats
  • Saturated fat raises levels of bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol), increases inflammation, and affects clotting processes in the body

3. Exploring the Science and Impact of Fats and Oils

  • Trans fats are really bad for you
  • In 2007, the World Health Organization proposed to reduce industrially produced trans fats
  • By 2021, 28 countries had mandatory trans fat limits in place, covering about 2.8 billion people
  • With the removal of trans fat from margarines, there is a need to find another way of creating hard fats with suitable melting points for margarine
  • Fats and oils play an important functional role in food, such as their melt profile that they confer to a food
  • Chocolate contains cocoa butter as the main fat and cocoa butter melts at 37 degrees Celsius, which is body temperature
  • The food industry needs to mimic the melt profile of butter with spreads, and replace hard trans fats with another kind of hard fat

4. Investigating the Health Properties and Production Processes of Margarine

  • Processing changes the structure of where the molecules sit within the fat to achieve a suitable melt profile
  • US margarine has predominantly stearic acid, while UK margarine has predominantly palmitic acid
  • Study found no difference in health effects between palmitic acid rich spreads in the UK and stearic acid rich spreads in the US when fed to individuals for six weeks
  • Definition of ultra processed food: something you can't make in your own kitchen
  • Chemicals like emulsifiers are added to margarine to make it stick together
  • Colorants are used to give margarine a yellow-orange color that mimics butter
  • Margarine is viewed as an ultra-processed food using the current classification system
  • Full hydrogenation changes an unsaturated fat to a saturated fat, making it really hard
  • Blend fully hydrogenated fat with a liquid oil to give it a suitable melt profile
  • Manufacturers use a process called interesterification to avoid trans fats, which changes the structure of fat molecules

5. Analyzing the Health Impact of Butter Consumption

  • Human research studies are important to understand the health impact of butter vs margarine
  • Population studies are used to compare the impact of different foods on health over a number of years
  • The composition of margarine has changed over the last 20 years, making it tricky to compare with older studies
  • Historical studies would show that margarines were bad due to the presence of trans fats
  • If you're consuming butter at quite normal levels and we follow you over many number of years, it seems to have a very small impact on your health outcome
  • Rates of heart attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular disease were high in Finland, partly attributed to the high butter intake and other unhealthy components in their diet
  • At the level of intake common in the UK and the US, the evidence shows that it's unlikely to have any significant long-term unfavorable effect

6. Examining the Long-term Health Effects of Spreads and Oils

  • At low levels of intake, spreads are unlikely to have any significant long-term unfavorable effects
  • Swapping from butter to highly unsaturated fat spreads can lead to a reduction in circulating blood cholesterol, specifically the bad LDL cholesterol
  • Emulsifiers in spreads have an impact on the microbiome, and their long-term impact on health is not fully understood
  • Swapping to unsaturated fat-rich spreads can benefit in reducing cholesterol, especially for people with high cholesterol
  • It's important to understand the long-term health impact of the relatively new spreads being consumed
  • Extra virgin olive oil, without a doubt, is the healthiest fat or oil that anyone could consume.
  • Research on ultra-processed foods and their impact on health
  • Working with other scientists to understand the effects of ultra-processed foods based on the latest data and microbiome information
  • Actively researching to provide the best and most recent evidence to people regarding the health effects of fat