Butter vs. Margarine (+ Is Grass Fed Better?)
Butter and margarine are such different foods that they almost shouldn’t be compared in the same article. However, mainstream nutrition has pawned margarine off as simply a butter alternative, which it most certainly is not. Good quality butter (and more on this in a moment) is packed full of healthy omega 3 fats and important nutrients such as vitamin K, butyrate and CLA. Contrary to popular belief, it actually has a major place is a healthy diet, and is one of the best cooking fats available.
Bottom line: butter is a real, whole food. It is made by simply churning the fatty portion of cow’s milk. Margarine is a highly processed food-like product that was invented to replace butter, while offering zero nutrient benefits (and actually potentially causing harm). Instead of being loaded with nutrients, it is loaded with chemicals.
But Isn’t Butter Bad for Me?
Starting around the same time that the low-fat/no-fat craze came about (in the mid 1900’s), butter was demonized by mainstream media and nutrition.
Butter is very high in saturated fat and cholesterol, so has therefore been put into the category of “bad.” Fortunately, many studies have surfaced in recent years debunking the myth that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol are responsible for heart disease (1), obesity and diseases they they are commonly blamed for (the real culprit has been found to be refined carbohydrates, but that is for another article), and it is slowly but surely becoming common knowledge that good fats are a key part of a healthy diet. However, butter is still feared by many.
In fact, studies have shown that saturated fats and cholesterol (such as those found in butter and eggs) can actually improve your blood lipid profile and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels (2).
And Isn’t Margarine Good for Me?
That is exactly what margarine manufacturers and proponents of the low fat diet would have you believe, but it’s simply not the case. First of all, margarine is typically made of mostly hydrogenated vegetable oils, like safflower or soybean.
Since vegetable oils are unsaturated and therefore liquid at room temperature (just like olive or flax oil), manufacturers remedy this situation by putting the oils through the process of hydrogenation, which entails turning them into trans fats via exposure to high temperatures and pressure. These delicate oils at high temperatures oxidize (become rancid) and rancid oils can cause free radicals in the body, which are linked with cardiovascular disease (3) and even cancer. However, this is what makes margarine spreadable like butter, so health concerns are put aside to make room for higher profits and longer shelf life.
Nowadays that there is more knowledge surrounding the dangers of trans fats, there are certain margarine brands that claim to not contain any, but remember that manufacturers are not required to label them if they are in quantities of less than 0.5 grams.
The point is, why would you opt for margarine when the real thing (butter) is incredibly health promoting?
Why Grass Fed Butter is Best
It’s not quite as simple as just buying any old butter (although even non-organic butter is superior to margarine). In order to reap the many nutrient benefits of butter, grass fed is by far the best choice.
Conventional butter comes from the milk of grain fed cows. The classic slogan “you are what you eat,” applies in the same way to animals as it does to humans, and grass fed animals offer some serious nutritional benefits that conventional, grain fed animals, do not.
First of all, the fatty acid composition of grass fed and grain fed meat and butter are quite different, and grass fed offers a much higher percentage of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids and less pro-inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids (4).
Second, grass fed meat (and other products such as milk and butter) has significantly higher amounts of key nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and carotenoids (like beta carotene). Also, grass fed meat and products offer high levels of antioxidants such as vitamin E and glutathione, which are key for protecting our cells from oxidation.
Depending on where you live, you can probably find grass fed butter in your local health food store, farmers market or local farmer. If not, you can also purchase it online. Check out this great source of how to find the best butter possible, and your best to worst options.
The Incredible Nutritional Benefits of Grass Fed Butter
1. Omega 3 fatty acids
People in modern day society tend to eat way too many omega 6 fatty acids, and far too few omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 6 fats are not inflammatory in and of themselves when eaten in the right amount, but a skewed ratio (too many omega 6: omega 3’s) can be a recipe for systemic inflammation (5).
Grass fed meat and butter are higher in omega 3 fats than grain fed meat. Margarine, on the other hand, is essentially 100% omega 6 fats.
2. Vitamin K2
This important nutrient is found in high amounts in grass fed butter, and is responsible for supporting essential bodily functions such as blood clotting and helping to direct calcium to your teeth and bones. Vitamin K2 also plays an important role in protecting you against diseases such as heart disease (6), cancer (7) and osteoporosis (8).
Conjugated linoleic acid is a fatty acid found mainly in meat and dairy products, and has been shown to actually support fat loss and prevent cancer. Grass fed meats are significantly higher in this nutrient than its grain fed counterpart.
Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid also found in grass fed butter. Butyrate is actually produced naturally by gut bacteria, and it works to improve digestion (9), fight systemic inflammation and help with weight management.
Take Home Lesson: Butter is Healthier
Now that you can rest assured that butter will not cause heart disease or make you fat, there is really no reason to avoid it. On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to avoid margarine, being that it offers no nutritional benefit and has been linked to heart disease and other health problems significantly more than butter (ironic, because it was produced to accomplish just the opposite).
As if that weren’t enough, butter is also an excellent cooking fat, as you can heat it on high temperatures without risking oxidation (similarly to coconut oil), as will happen with commonly used cooking oils like canola, soy and corn. And of course, who doesn’t love the taste of food cooked in real butter?
What If I’m Lactose Intolerant?
Butter contains less than 0.1 gram of lactose per tablespoon, so unless you are highly sensitive, most people who are lactose intolerant can still handle butter. Considering that you are unlikely to consume huge amounts of butter all at once, you should be fine, but of course be aware of any new GI symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation.
So get out there and buy some high quality butter! Your body and your taste buds will thank you.