The Great Debate: Butter or Margarine

Will someone please take Tim Pawlenty out of the running for the 2012 Republican Party Presidential Candidacy? Watching him during interviews makes me so uncomfortable I actually feel compelled to mute my television, the audio equivalent of looking away from the screen during a horror or Omnimax film. It’s a compulsion propelled by either fear or queasiness. Between CNN’s New Hampshire GOP debate where he back peddled unmercifully about “Obamnie” Care and his agonizing references to Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen, and Justin Bieber during the Iowa Caucus, his public appearances have become cringe worthy at times. Exhibit A:

“If this were a Lady Gaga song, the relationship between the youth vote and Barack Obama would be ‘Bad Romance.'”

I still like to think of myself as a youth, and even I think he should consider a new speechwriter. Honestly Tim, love him or hate him, Obama has the youth vote. Please stop straining yourself. You know who Tim Pawlenty loves more than a bad awkward pop culture reference? Paula Deen*. You know what Paula Deen loves? Butter.

*Not a factual statement 

Are we there yet? Yes. I decided I would treat my avid followers with a topic I get confronted with anytime baked goods are discussed. Which is better, butter or margarine? I hate this question. When asked, my response is never as simple as the thoughts that formulate in my brain. And like that subscription to People magazine your sister-in-law gave you three years ago for your birthday, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. One answer leads to another question and before you know it, you’re discussing UNICEF at a Starbucks over two stale muffins and a bad cup of herbal tea.

So before we begin this ‘which is better’ debacle, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You’re asking the wrong question. Neither one is exactly “healthy”. The more accurate question to pose is which is less harmful?

Below is the pertinent data you need to compare the two:

One Tablespoon of Land O Lakes Unsalted Butter

Calories: 100
Cholesterol: 30 mg
Total Fat: 11 grams
Saturated Fat: 7 grams
Trans Fat: 0 grams
One Tablespoon of Land O Lakes Margarine 
Calories: 100
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Total Fat: 11 grams
Saturate Fat: 2 grams
Trans Fat: 2.5 grams
Both butter and margarine match each other calorie for calorie. It’s the cholesterol content and the distribution of fat that differs between the two. Let’s talk cholesterol first. If you read my post on eggs, you’ll know that only animal based products contain cholesterol, which is why margarine has no cholesterol. Don’t let the packaging fool you; it’s made from soybean oil. Margarine boasting its cholesterol free-ness is like a bottle of Aquafina proclaiming there’s water inside without tire pieces.
Now then, when it comes to total fat both counterparts contain 11 grams. Total fat intake for an adult over the age of 19 should be between 20-35% of total calories. If you consume 2,000 calories a day your fat intake should fall between 400-700 calories or 45-78 grams. As you can see 11 grams wouldn’t ruin your WHOLE day.
What’s more important to address when playing the ‘which is worse’ game, is to look at how the fat breaks down. While butter contains more saturated fat, margarine contains more trans fat.  If you’re wondering which is worse for you, I’m here to tell you trans fat trumps saturated fat any day of the week.Saturated fat does raise LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff). While that’s not ideal, trans fat not only raises LDL cholesterol it also lowers your HDL cholesterol (the good stuff). Trans fat is the karate chop of fat sources. For this reason, the new 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend to limit saturated fat intake to less than 10% of total calories and trans fat consumption as much as possible, meaning don’t eat any if you can avoid it. It’s for this very reason that as of 2006, food labels had to start including trans fat information and the New York City Health Code required all restaurants and food service operations no longer use artificial trans fats.
Enough technical talk, it’s now time for my opinion. When it comes to dessert/baked goods, are you really eating them to be healthy?  I’m not saying there isn’t a time a place for a healthful dessert, but really? And at the end of the day, how much of the spread are you actually consuming.  If I had to guess, I’d say it’s not an entire stick everyday.For the sake of application let’s look at an average chocolate chip cookie recipe yielding 60 cookies and calling for 2 sticks of butter. You’d have to eat almost four cookies to consume one tablespoon of butter. Consuming four cookies in one sitting isn’t impossible, but are you doing it on a daily basis? Probably not.
I recently had this butter vs. margarine debate and what I tell people time and time again is that if I’m eating dessert give me the butter. I’m not eating this cranberry orange scone as a favor to my waistline or because it’s ‘healthy’. I’m eating it because I want something delicious and decadent. A nutrition student is choosing butter over margarine? What kind of world are we living in? What’s the catch? The catch is moderation.  No, I’m not sitting on a high horse. It’s actually a very large pony. Thank you for noticing. They breed them in China now. But seriously, I’m not perfect. And if I’m not perfect, I don’t expect it from others. Besides, perfection is overrated and almost as frustrating as staring into the eyes of the 44th Governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. Please revisit my Sloth comment here.
When it comes to which fat to avoid more, it’s trans fat hands down. There is some good news out there. Trans fat-free margarine does exist! The key is to look for non-hydrogenated margarine. Brands like Benecol, Blue Bonnet Soft Spread, and Smart Balance all contain zero grams of trans fat. While these substitutes might work for spreading onto toast or a baked potato, they really churn out some foul baked goods.  If you’re so inclined to experiment and you think they’re good, you’re a liar. Either that or you’ve never tasted real food before.

So there you have it. You probably wanted a more direct answer, but that’s the best I can give you. Having somewhat endorsed butter as my go-to fat source for baking allow me to say this: If you have or are at risk for cardiovascular disease I encourage you to meet with your doctor or an RD before going hog-wild on all things butter.

I’d like to close with two thoughts. (1) I’ve mentioned before that I like consuming products where I can read all the ingredients and the list itself is short. Most imitation margarine products are the opposite of this ideology. Bearing this in mind, most butters tend to have two ingredients at most: sweet cream and salt. (2) Personally, at the end of the day, I’d rather have one real dessert than seven fake ones.

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