They are supposed to provide a good foundation for bread and, of course, not harm our health. Butter or margarine: Who scores more points in the duel? It depends.
At the breakfast table, the slice of bread on the plate, everyone has a favourite: Some need the soft taste of butter on their sandwich. Others prefer to reach for margarine as a vegetable alternative. Butter or margarine: which is healthier? “The question is not easy to answer,” says nutritionist and author Burkhard Jahn. And also, the Diplom-Ökotrophologin and fat metabolism therapist Silke Lorenz-Gürtler says: “I would align the answer according to who asks me.”
But all over again: The two competitors don’t do much in terms of calories. One level tablespoon (10 grams) of butter has 75 kilocalories (kcal), while margarine has 72 kcal. Butter is a natural product that is generally made from cow’s milk. Apart from the natural colourant beta-carotene, it must not contain any artificial additives. And what about the cholesterol content? “It is about 240 milligrams in 100 grams of butter – about as much as in a single egg,” says Silke Lorenz-Gürtler.
Margarine, on the other hand, is an industrially manufactured product. To make it spreadable, liquid oils and solid fats are used. Sunflower oil, for example, is hardened, or naturally solid fats such as palm kernel or coconut fat are used. “Because the composition can vary widely, the health assessment also varies widely,” says Lorenz-Gürtler. She refers to studies by Prof. Werner O. Richter. He is the scientific director of the Academy for Differentiated and Integral Fat Metabolism Therapy.
Fat is not equal to fat
In any case, one thing is clear: fats don’t have it easy. “No other nutrient has such a bad reputation,” says nutritional physician Burkhard Jahn, who teaches at the universities of Oldenburg and Hanover. For decades, he says, fats in themselves have been blamed for many diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attacks and an increased risk of death. “They were also blamed for high cholesterol levels and obesity,” says Jahn.
In the meantime, however, more differentiation is being made – because not all fats are the same. According to Jahn, at least saturated fatty acids have now been “absolved.” That’s good news for all butter fans because butter comprises about two-thirds saturated fats. In margarine, the portion of saturated fatty acids is usually smaller. Here, too, the respective margarine products differ.
From a health perspective, nutritionist Jahn tends to take a more critical view of two groups of fats found primarily in old types of margarine: omega-6 fats and hydrogenated fats. “These are both fats that cause quite a lot of mischief in our bodies because they promote inflammation and increase blood pressure,” says the physician. Today, he says, we know that virtually all chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, cancer, dementia and rheumatism, result from years of inflammatory processes. “If I now eat fats in large quantities that promote inflammation, I am facilitating the development of chronic diseases.”
That also applies to trans fats, he said. They are created from vegetable fats, usually oils. And they do so when heated, with temperatures of up to 350 degrees involved. “But in the process, the fat structure changes; it becomes kinky, if you will,” Jahn warns.
Natural fats, he says, our bodies can handle and process. “Trans fatty acids, on the other hand, do not belong in our organism and are associated with many health problems,” says Jahn. They are found primarily in frying fat but also in margarine.
Is fat unhealthy?
And yet, the nutritionist – like vegans – now prefers margarine to butter. Under one condition: He does not take cheap margarine from the discounter but an organic product and looks very closely at the ingredients. His tip: “If you buy margarine, then a high-quality one, which consists of rapeseed or coconut oil and possibly still contains some carrot juice and almond paste.”
But those who want to avoid hydrogenated and omega-6 fats are not made easy: “You won’t read anything about omega-6 in the ingredients,” says Jahn, because these would often hide behind sunflower oil. His conclusion: “For reasons of simplicity, you should prefer butter when you shop in the supermarket. You’ll have a hard time finding good margarine there.” For health reasons, at any rate, you can take butter with a clear conscience, he said.
If you want to support the species-appropriate farming of cows, you should choose butter that says “from pasture-raised.” But it may also be that you prefer margarine for ethical reasons: “In that case, however, you should familiarize yourself with what is written on the label and ideally buy it in an organic food store,” says Jahn.
Even more on the choice of their spread fat should pay attention to humans with increased blood fat values. Silke Lorenz-Gürtler points out that butter with fat metabolic disturbances has “a healthwise not so favourable fat composition.” And also, margarine can have “unfavourable health effects” due to certain fats and oils. Coconut fat, for example, increases the risk of fatty liver.
Her conclusion: “If a child asked me whether they could spread butter on bread, I would say: Of course! But I would advise plain sunflower margarine to someone with dyslipidemia.” But no matter what the experts prefer, butter almost always scores on one criterion: taste. Margarine wins in every price comparison.
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