Ask CK: Butter Or Margarine? What's a Girl To Do?

If you have a question you'd like to ask Casual Kitchen, send it in!!
Eleni asks:

I wonder if you could help settle a family debate. Do you use real butter, half-butter-half-vegetable-fat spreads, or olive oil-based spreads...or what? My mum will only buy real butter, and she slaps it on pretty thick. Subsequently, she has high cholesterol. She's not anywhere near overweight, and otherwise her diet's not bad - plenty of fruit and veggies and hardly any pre-packaged convenience foods. So...I blame the butter.

My sister came to visit me and was horrified when I produced a tub of half-butter-half-vegetable-fat "spreadable butter" for our toast. "Don't you know they're full of crap?" she cried! So what's a girl to do? What do you do in the Casual Kitchen?

This is a provocative question, mainly because so much of the science and health conclusions out there simply aren't clear. In fact, do readers remember (I think it was back in the late 80s/early 90s) a widely publicized study that claimed margarine was healthier for you than butter--and then shortly thereafter a different and equally well-publicized study came out and claimed the exact opposite?

Thanks for nothing guys.

In recent years, health experts have shifted the debate somewhat. Rather than helping us make a Morton's fork of a choice between butter or margarine, they now caution us from consuming excess trans fats. Of course, trans fats tend to show up more in margarine and other hydrogenated vegetable oils. Thus that's a strike against manufactured vegetable oil based spreads.

Then again, now that limiting your intake of trans fats is standard health advice, many manufacturers have reformulated their spreads to reduce--and in some cases eliminate--trans fats.

Once again, thanks for nothing. I still don't know which is better.

Now, with butter, we have a different problem. Butter contains very small amounts of trans fats, but there is some (mixed) evidence that the specific types of trans fats in butter are actually good for you. However, butter also contains cholesterol, which isn't in hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Confused yet? I'll confuse you more--because there isn't always a connection between the cholesterol you ingest and cholesterol levels in your blood. All of us have that annoying friend or family member who eats all the butter and egg yolks she wants and yet still has great cholesterol numbers. And my wife, despite her steady diet of oatmeal, exercise and red wine, has always had borderline bad cholesterol numbers.

What do we do here at Casual Kitchen? Well, as readers well know, we are true omnivores: we eat everything, but we eat nothing to excess (uh, with the exception of dark chocolate). Thus, we try to keep our fat intake at reasonable levels, and we try to keep our intake of hydrogenated oils at a very bare minimum.

And I'll confess in the interests of full disclosure, I have a bit of a personal bias against manufactured fats. The idea of a fat that's been deliberately modified so that it remains solid at room temperature, and the idea of putting something like that in my body--and later having it possibly floating around in my arteries... I mean, if I think about this too much I kind of lose my appetite.

Therefore, when we cook, we use olive oil. When we bake, we try to bias our ingredients towards butter. When it comes to "butter-like" spreads, we pretty much never use them. Instead, we try to cook and eat foods that taste great by themselves, and those kinds of foods ideally shouldn't need butter or butter-like spreads to taste better.

Last, my biggest confession of all--and proof that there's not an ounce of food absolutism here at Casual Kitchen, ever. On occasion, we will happily use hydrogenated oils--a textbook example being Laura's brilliantly perfect apple pie crust, which simply handles best with Crisco. Then again, in 2007, Crisco reformulated their shortening too, and they've now eliminated almost all of the trans fats from their product.

Hmmm... one more slice of pie for me!

So how do you know whether butter is better or manufactured spreads are better? Well, the short answer is, neither is good for you if eaten to excess. But likewise, neither will kill you if eaten in moderation.

And that, I think, is the real answer. Eat what you like, but please do so in moderation.

Readers, what is your take on the butter vs butter-like spread debate? How do you balance health concerns with taste? Share your thoughts!

Trans Fat Fight Claims Butter as a Victim (New York Times)
Trans Fat is Double Trouble For Your Heart Health (Mayo Clinic)
Natural Trans Fats Have Health Benefits, New Study Shows (Science Daily)
Consumer Reports Weighs In On New Crisco (Consumer Reports)
Trans fat (Wikipedia)

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Emmy said...

Dan, I owe you an apology. When this article title popped into my Reader, I thought, "well, here comes another thoughtless cholesterol/trans fat diatribe." I should have given you more credit. Thank you for pointing out the (not always) relationship between food cholesterol and blood cholesterol. Often that is either overlooked or just ignored because it's not really the "party line".

In our home, we use butter. Real, pastured butter. And lard. Not the stuff you buy at the store, the stuff you get at the butcher. And olive oil, and organic coconut oil. And a smidge of bacon fat. A few years ago I read Nina Planck's "Real Food: What to Eat and Why" and just decided that we were going to tailor our diets as if the last century of food science never happened.

It's working for us. I don't have current cholesterol numbers, but DH and I have both lost weight and we don't get sick very much. I think our grocery budget is smaller, too.

Sara said...

Personally I prefer to go as all-natural as I can... at the moment, though, I have one of those tubs of half-butter-spread-half-Soylent-Green, but that's mostly because I'm madly in love with bread rolls that I keep in the freezer that can be warmed up in 45 seconds and then immediately need a slathering of *something*

I do have high cholesterol but it's genetic. I was 15 when I was first tested and my numbers were TERRIBLE. My parents fed me a mostly healthy diet, and I've been eating pretty well for the last couple of years, but I still can't get it down naturally.

K said...

Butter for baking, spreads, topping potatoes, etc. Vegetable oil for cooking and olive oil for dressings

And lard, yes, lard, for pie crust (half and half with butter for flavour) and seasoning my cast iron.

In fact, having just bought 150 pounds of pork, rendering some lard is on the to-do list this weekend.

Oh, and my cholesterol numbers are on the low end of normal. Sure, diet matters, but I think genetics matter SO much more for certain health issues - like cholesterol.

Milehimama @ Mama Says said...

We avoid trans fats like the plague, so we're butter eaters here.

Here's a budget/calorie trick though: make your own butter spread.

Soften butter, then put it in your mixer. Beat in 1/3c. oil and 1/3 c. water and you'll have a softer "spread" type butter that's transfat free. It will also stretch the pricey butter and has fewer calories.

chacha1 said...

Definitely, butter chez nous. For all bread-related applications and to flavor what I cook. It's just olive oil, or butter + olive oil, generally for cooktop preparations - but bacon fat is also in there occasionally.

I have some spreadable mostly-butter Land O Lakes in the fridge that I use for greasing the Bundt cake pans.

Have no idea what my cholesterol numbers are, and don't much care. Sometime this year I will get a physical and then I'll know ... but I probably won't change my ways. Not going to stop eating eggs either!

AmandaLP said...

I agree with the dislike of manufactured oils. I use butter (pastured if I can get it), coconut oil, bacon grease, and the occasional lard for cooking. I use mostly butter for baking, though really enjoyed the flaky lard pie crust. I have high quality olive oil that I use for finishing and salads.

Anonymous said...

I use butter for baking, unless it's a pie crust and then it's lard, unless it has to be vegetarian, and then i use that vegan friendly shortening. Which does have transfats. I use olive or peanut oils for cooking, and I eat oatmeal everyday so I don't worry about my slightly higher than it should be cholesterol.

The bigger crime against food is when your MIL melts a stick of blue bonnet and serves it up along side crab legs as "butter" to dip the meat in.

Joanne said...

Hmm well. I use butter for baking. All the time. Unless I'm using olive oil in cakes or such (in place of vegetable oil), which I feel is better anyway. I never use shortening, ever. It grosses me out. If I'm making toast or using butter to cook with, though...I'll occasionally use that butter that has olive oil in it. It just seems like a better option for something I'll be eating multiple nights a week.

Cynthia said...

Butter for us, but not for any of the reasons listed.
All the margarine's and half spread are high in salt. And when you are on a low salt diet, every bit counts.
I get good butter, real butter from the local dairy co-op, and other than the salt from the milk, it's low sodium.

Charlyn said...

Butter!! Sometimes olive or canola oil for stove top prep, or sometimes oil and butter depending on what's cooking. Definitely butter for baking.

We make a homemade spread of 1 lb butter and 1 cup safflower oil and keep it in the fridge at all times. It has a lovely light taste, MUCH better than any of the store bought 1/2 & 1/2 spreads we have tried. It's spreadable right out of the fridge and I think we actually use less fat with this because it's so soft. We got this recipe from friends who got it from a cardiologist.
However, I've learned NOT to use my spread for cooking, as my Calphalon non stick cookware does not like the safflower oil for some reason. That's ok, there's always BUTTER!

Julia said...

As you say, both butter and "spreads" have their upsides and downsides. Given that, I'd rather eat the real thing.

As Joan Gussaw says, "I eat butter instead of margarine, because I trust cows more than scientists."

Daniel said...

Some exceptional insights in here, thanks for all the great thoughts. I want to call out in particular the ideas for homemade spread recipes from Milehimamma and Charlyn. Those are excellent examples of first-order foods which are both less expensive and healthier. Love it.

Finally, Julia, that is just a great quote. Thanks for sharing.


Brittany said...

Shameful confession: I am a die-hard margarine user. I grew up poor, and I had never had "real" butter outside of little tubs at restaurants until I was in college and had some high-income-bracket friends who refused to use anything but. I lived with one of these friends for several years, and she judged me terribly for continuing to use margarine. =D

I honestly use very little butter/margarine outside of baking--very occasionally on bread (the only case where I prefer butter), a teaspoon here or there for sauteeing a bit of onion, but for baking, I honestly dislike the way butter makes baked goods taste. It has much too strong and overpowering a flavor.

I know margarine's not great for me, so my solution is to just eat less. What can I say? I'm afraid my palette is forever ruined.

Had to rep for margarine a bit. I'd be curious whether all the margarine haters grew up in butter-using households.

Daniel said...

I don't see it as a shameful confession at all. You like what you like, right? All I ask is that my readers avoid making mindless buying decisions. That's just a recipe for giving your power (and your money) away. But hey, if this is your active, mindful choice, nothing wrong with it. At all.


Ann said...

You can't lose with butter. It is better for you and tastes better!

Eleni said...

Daniel, thank you so much for publishing my question, I am honoured!

I LOVE the recipes suggestions for making your own spreadable butter-stuff! I actually never use butter/marge for cooking (I'm half Greek, it's olive oil all the way for me), it's pretty much just to spread onto my toast, and for baking cakes, in which case I prefer the flavour of real butter. And now, thanks to the cows vs scientist quote, I have an even better excuse :)

Anonymous said...

Spanish Olive oil for sauteeing & roasting, butter for baking (except oatmeal cookies - those like crisco) & schmaltz for frying eggs, onions & potatoes.

(I render my own schmaltz & snack on the resulting gribnes)

Sally said...

I used to avoid fat or use margarine. Now I use butter, olive oil or canola oil depending on the use. Funny thing, not only do I feel better, all my indicators are better than previously.

The old Imperial margarine commercial was right: "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature."

oilandgarlic said...

We are pretty much in line with Emmy -- real food that wasn't invented in the 20th century -- i.e. olive oil, real butter. We try not to use too much butter though. I have that same approach with sugar, real sugar but not too much rather than artificial sweeteners.

Anonymous said...

Curious, but how did you arrive at the conclusion butter has any man made trans fats in it? This to me seems either misleading, or a missed educational opportunity were you to site the source of that information.

Good article though, I've used both through the years for various reasons. Been trying to stick with the real deal whenever possible.

Anonymous said...

^.....just noticed the article from 07 below your article.

Daniel said...

Anonymous: Exactly, the NY Times article "Trans Fat Fight Claims Butter as a Victim" discusses the fact that butter contains a small amount of trans fats.


Anonymous said...

Butter, olive oil, duck fat.

I live in the oolican grease neighbourhood, which is naturally solid and stable at room temperature, but I can't get past the aroma. Used for thousands of years, valuable trading commodity back in the day.