This report covers butter, margarine and spreads, including vegan non-dairy alternatives.
What is the difference between butter, margarine and a spread?
Butter has a milk fat content between 80%-90% and is made by churning (dairy) cream until it thickens into butter.
Margarine is generally derived from plant-based oils, goes through a process of hydrogenation to turn those liquid fats solid, and contains between 80%-90% fat.
A spread is a blend of plant and/or animal fats with a fat content that is less than 80%.
Butter vs margarine vs spread - which is healthiest?
Margarine, also called butterine early on, was invented in the 19th century to feed growing populations due to a shortage of dairy butter. Amidst rationing during WWII, margarine became a staple food amongst all social classes. Yet it was associated with inferiority, poverty and fakeness, becoming, according to food historian Alysa Levene “a vehicle for class racism.”
In the 1960s and 70s, margarine had a revival, against the backdrop of increasing heart and cardiovascular disease. Around this time, too much saturated fat (of which there are high amounts in butter) was discovered to cause heart disease. Companies were quick to capitalise on this, with spread and margarine brands quickly coming onto the market and dominating sales by marketing themselves as having the full flavour of butter with much less of the saturated fat. In effect, Brits were swapping out saturated fats for polyunsaturated fatty acids.
However, the process to turn the liquid polyunsaturated fats into one which is spreadable but solid at room temperature – as needed for marg and spreads – involves partial hydrogenation: a process that creates trans fats, discovered in the 1990s to be worse for you than saturated fat.
Over the years, spreads have also been promoted as the healthier alternative to butter and margarine as they contain less than the 80% fat level demanded of butter and marg. However, the issue of trans fats still applies and there is endless debate between scientists as to which product is healthiest.
Nowadays, some newer margarines and spreads are low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated fat, and free of trans fats altogether.
But really the butter vs marg vs spread question is a false comparison, as it depends on which brand you’re talking about.
Overall, we would recommend that, whichever product you choose, you eat it sparingly as part of a balanced diet.