Butter vs Margarine for a Low Cholesterol Diet

Butter Has Saturated Fats, Most Margarine Has Trans Fats

Butter slices. Credit: David Herrmann

Butter vs margarine - which one should you eat on a low cholesterol diet?

Margarine and butter are popular spreads and widely used cooking ingredients. Margarine and butter don't have the same ingredients and the process to manufacture them is different. As a result, you may be able to detect differences in consistency and taste in the final product. Some people think they taste the same.

However, when it comes to lowering your cholesterol, which one should you eat?

Not All Margarine Is Created Equal

Margarine does not contain as much saturated fat as butter does and comes in a variety of forms:

  • stick
  • spread (in a tub)
  • liquid

Margarine does, however, contain unsaturated fats, which are linked to lowering cholesterol and are also found in foods such as nuts and fish.

Most Margarine Contains Harmful Trans Fats

The unsaturated fats in most margarine undergo a process called hydrogenation, which introduces harmful trans fats into the margarine. The trans-fatty acids are what gives margarine its solid consistency at room temperature.

Results from clinical studies show consuming these man-made trans fats is associated with a 28 percent  increased risk of death from heart disease and a 34 percent increased risk of death overall.

How Much Trans Fats Are In Margarine?

Certain brands of margarine, usually the ones you can find in the natural foods section, don't contain any trans fats.

Otherwise, you can generally determine how much trans-fats each form of margarine has by its softness.

For example, those that are more solid at room temperature contain more trans-fats than those that come in a tub, which are generally softer.

Since there are many brands of margarine out there, look for ones that advertise "no trans-fats" or for liquid options that do not contain trans-fatty acids or “partially hydrogenated” oils in their ingredients.

Check your food labels to make an informed decision.

Butter Isn't Great For Your Health Either

Butter comes in two major forms: stick and spread. It is primarily made up of saturated fat and cholesterol.

It doesn’t sound like much, but if you look at the ingredients label on the back of a butter product, one tablespoon contains almost the maximum amount of saturated fat and cholesterol allowed each day.

One tablespoon of butter contains roughly 30 mg of cholesterol and 7 g of saturated fat -- the maximum amount allowed daily is 200 mg and 10 mg, respectively. Additionally, because both of these types of fats are linked to raising cholesterol and risk of heart disease, butter generally is not recommended.

Since butter comes from milk, if it's not organic or specifically labeled as free of bovine growth hormone (rGBH), it may contain rGBH. This substance can cause harm to cows and the verdict is still out as to whether it harms humans or not.

Which Should I Use, Butter or Margarine?

If you are looking for a suitable margarine or butter product to keep your heart healthy, shop carefully by reading the label.

If you choose margarine, be sure to look for softer margarine that does not contain trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils.

An even better choice would be spreads that contain phytosterols, such as Benecol, which can lower your LDL (“bad” cholesterol) by 10 percent.

Dipping your bread in olive oil is also quite nice and healthy.


Cleveland Clinic: Trans Fats, Not Saturated Fats Linked to Health Risks (2015)

Rolfes SR, Whitney E. Understanding Nutrition, 3rd ed 2005.

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