The difference between Butter and Margarine. What is better?

What is the difference between butter and margarine? What is better? What is more healthy? Can you substitute butter for margarine?
Butter or margarine are probably products that you use quite often. To spread on a sandwich, to fry your dinner or to bake a cake. So you might have asked yourself these questions before. On this page I’m telling you what the difference is between butter and margarine, and which one is better.

The Difference

The difference between butter and margarine is quite simple: butter is made from milk and margarine is made from vegetable oil. The two look very similar, they have the same color and texture. Even the flavor is very similar. But the ingredients are totally different.
As I said, butter is made from milk. It’s made by churning cow’s milk to get the fat out of the milk. In the Netherlands there are two terms, ‘boter’ and ‘roomboter’, but they’re actually absolutely the same. In some countries you can only call a product ‘butter’ if it contains at least 80% fat.
Milk contains around 4% fat and as butter needs to contain 80% fat, you’ll need about 20 liters of milk for each kilogram of butter.

Margarine is a butter-like spread but it’s made entirely plant-based. It’s mainly made from a vegetable oil; which can be anything from olive oil to sunflower oil or coconut oil.
As margarine isn’t made from milk, it’s suitable for people with a lactose intolerance. Margarine is plant-based so it’s also vegan.
Please note that in most cases Margarines are vegan and lactose-free, but in some countries they add a bit of milk to margarine so you might want to double check your label.

It’s easy to make your own margarine. Click here for my basic margarine recipe and three variations.

What’s healthier?

You probably know that unsaturated fat is healthier than saturated fat. Our body needs unsaturated fat; it’s a macronutrient and delivers vitamines A, D and E.
Saturated fats increase the blood cholesterol level. An elevated cholesterol is one of the risk factors in the development of heart disease. Elevated cholesterol has a number of causes, many of which you can influence with small changes to your diet. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet has been shown to lower the blood cholesterol. Paying attention to the amount of saturated fat vs. the amount of unsaturated fat is a positive step. For example, butter is higher in saturated fat than margarine. It also depends on how often you eat something, but margarine could be a healthier alternative.
Besides, margarine contains vitamin D and butter doesn’t. Margarine could therefore contribute to your daily intake of vitamin D’. (About 80% of vitamin D is created under the skin by sunlight, but with less ‘sun hours’ some people will have deficiencies of vitamin D).
In the Netherlands they also sell a product called ‘halvarine’. Halvarine is a margarine that contains even less fat. For young kids up until the age of 4 it’s better to use regular margarine instead of halvarine as they are often getting a bit too little fats.

For frying it’s best to use a liquid margarine. As you know now, margarine is better than butter. And liquid margarine also has an advantage over olive oil: it contains more added vitamin A and D.

Note: even though coconut butter is a plant-based butter, it isn’t necessarily healthier. Coconut butter is in proportion very high in saturated fats.

What’s more sustainable?

If butter or margarine is more sustainable is a more difficult question. To process the plants or vegetables needed for the margarine has an impact on the environment, but so does having cows.
Luckily there’s been a big study in 2010 that compared the environmental impact of butter and margarine in three European countries (UK, France, Germany). It showed that margarine has a significantly lower environmental impact than butter. Margarine had less than half the impact of butter on global warming potential. The study also showed that ‘margarines use approximately half of the land required used for producing the butter products’.
The main reason for the big environmental impact of butter is the methane gasses coming from the cow’s digestive proces and the large amount of land needed to grow food for the dairy cows.

The only downside of margarine can be the use of palm oil. Palm oil is widely used in many products (from lipstick to chocolate), mainly because of its low costs. But you might have also heard of the downside of palm oil; forest areas in Indonesia are being cleared for the cultivation of palm oil.
However, sustainable palm is a suitable solution at this moment, since good oil alternatives are not available. Sustainable palm oil does not contribute to any deforestation, destruction of habitats, or loss of biodiversity. On margarines you will see the RSPO-logo (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) declaring if certified sustainable palm oil is used. If you still prefer palm-oil free products, some margarines are also palm-oil free. In the Netherlands I know that Becel Pure doesn’t contain any palm oils.
If a product does contain palm oil, you can check if they work with certified sustainable palm oil.

If you’re worried about deforestation, you might also want to lower your meat and dairy intake. Many great forest areas, including the Amazone, are being cleared to make soy fields that are used for animal feed.

Substitute butter for margarine

Now that we know that margarine is healthier and better for the environment than butter, it’s time to see when we can substitute butter for margarine.

In most baking recipes where butter is not the main ingredient, it’s fine to substitute the butter for margarine. In recipes where the butter takes an important role you might want to go for a high-fat margarine. If you use a low-fat margarine, it’ll be healthier but less good for your recipe as the dough can be spread out more.
If you’re using margarine in cake batters, you want to make sure that the margarine is chilled and not at room temperature. Otherwise the margarine might melt too fast and that won’t be able to hold the air bubbles in the batter. Which will result in a less airy cake. I used margarine in the ombre cakes pictured above, as you can see the dough is just as airy as when you’d have used butter.
For recipes where butter is a very important ingredient, like puff pastry, you can only substitute it with margarine if the margarine also has a fat percentage of 80%.
You can also substitute butter for coconut oil in baking recipes. It has a strong flavor, so in some recipes it’s a better match than in others. Coconut oil is also relatively high in fats, and as we discussed health in this article as well, you might want to be aware of this.

Do you often use butter on your sandwiches? For example with cheese, meat or chocolate sprinkles (if you’re Dutch). For this you can use a spreadable margarine. It has the same structure and serves the same purpose (flavor and ‘stickiness’).

If you want to replace butter for frying your vegetables or meat, you could go for a liquid margarine. In general margarines that have a liquid oil (like olive oil) as the main ingredient, will work best. This is because they have less water, and water can burn quite fast. There are also plant-based products for frying in handy squeeze bottles.

Want to eat more plant-based? Click here for all my vegetarian and vegan recipes.

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