Margarine: Healthy Or Unhealthy?

Margarine or butter – which is better? In this text, you will learn everything about margarine: which fats and oils it is made from, what health advantages and disadvantages it has, and how you can recognize high-quality margarine.

Margarine is not always purely plant-based

Margarine is considered by many people to be a plant-based substitute for butter. While butter only contains milk fat, margarine can be mixed together from a wide variety of fats and additives, and the ingredients don’t even have to be plant-based.

So it is absolutely not uncommon for animal ingredients to be processed in margarine, e.g. B. whey products, lactose, or skimmed milk. The added flavors can also contain milk components. Kinds of Margarine are therefore by no means automatically vegan, lactose-free, or milk-protein-free. It is therefore necessary to look at the list of ingredients in any case.

Due to the different compositions, we cannot go into a specific fatty acid pattern and its properties for margarine – in contrast to butter. The health effects can therefore vary greatly from margarine to margarine and depend on the fats used. For all the butter information, check out part 1 of our comparison at the very first butter link at the top of this section.

Only buy margarine if the types of oil and fat are specified

Most margarine contains some of the following oils: sunflower oil, canola oil, palm oil, olive oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and/or coconut oil.

It is extremely customer-hostile if the list of ingredients for margarine only reads: “Vegetable fats and oils”. So you don’t even find out which fats and oils are contained and therefore you can’t estimate which fatty acids you are consuming with this product and what the quality of the margarine is. We generally advise against such margarine.

With other margarine, the oils contained are stated on the package, but not in which proportions. It looks like this on the list of ingredients – using Sanella as an example: “Vegetable fats and oils (palm, rapeseed, sunflower in variable proportions)”. Here, too, one cannot assess the fat quality of the margarine.

The ingredients in the margarine

The composition of conventional margarine is not very inviting and usually sounds like this (or something similar):

“Vegetable oil, vegetable fat, drinking water, whey product, table salt (0.3%), emulsifiers (lecithins, monoglycerides and diglycerides of fatty acids), preservative (potassium sorbate), acid (citric acid), flavoring, coloring (carotene), vitamins (vitamin A and vitamin D).
Since margarine manufacturers want to prevent the butter from having any advantages over margarine, they add approximately the same amounts of nutrients to their margarine recipes as are naturally found in butter (vitamins A, D, and E). Only vitamin K is not added.

It becomes alarming when hardened or partially hardened fats appear in the list of ingredients, e.g. B.:

“61% sunflower oil, water, 13.5% fully hydrogenated sunflower oil, coconut fat, emulsifier: lecithins, mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids; 0.2% table salt, natural flavor, acidifier: citric acid, vitamin D, coloring: carotene.
Although healthy margarine is free of hydrogenated fats, they are otherwise not very different from conventional margarine. At best, natural aroma is listed there instead of just aroma. After all, salt, whey, and preservatives are missing. Everything else is often identical.

Margarine Production: Hydrogenated Fats

The hardening process is used in margarine production to make the actually liquid vegetable oils firmer and easier to spread. Unfortunately, harmful trans fatty acids can form during hardening. This is a special type of unsaturated fatty acid.

Nevertheless, due to new manufacturing processes, the trans fat levels in today’s margarine are much lower than they were in the past. Values of 15 to 25 percent used to be normal. Today it is between 0 and a maximum of 2 percent – depending on the margarine quality.

The general recommendation is that one should not consume more than 2 g of trans fats per day – otherwise, the risk of cardiovascular disease increases. Those who do not eat ready-made products such as cakes, pastries, fried foods, confectionery, etc. will be able to comply with the recommendation without any problems. Because the hidden trans fats in the finished products mentioned are much more of a problem than the tiny amounts that are in the daily spoonful of margarine.

In addition, organic margarine must not be hardened using chemical processes, but only through cold processes or the addition of solid fats. The risk that trans fatty acids will find their way here is correspondingly low.

In any case, make sure that you buy margarine that does not contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats. It can still contain trans fatty acids, but only in very small amounts.

Butter also contains trans fats

Butter can also contain trans fatty acids – more than margarine: butter can contain up to 3 g trans fatty acids per 100 g, margarine usually less than 1 g per 100 g.

With a daily portion of 15 to 30 g, that’s only 0.45 to 0.9 g of trans fats that you would get from butter and around 0.15 to 0.3 g that you would get from margarine.

It is crucial, however, that there are different types of trans fats. Those that arise during the industrial processing of vegetable oils (hardening, refining, deodorization) and thus also in the manufacture of margarine and those that are naturally present in butter. The latter are formed during digestion in the rumen of the cows and, due to their fat solubility, also end up in the milk and ultimately in the butter.

Industrial trans fats have a very different structure and effect than natural trans fats. The so-called elaidic acid predominates in industrial trans fatty acids. It has been accused of lowering HDL cholesterol and raising LDL cholesterol (both of which are considered unhealthy) and promoting the development of a fatty liver.

In butter, on the other hand, trans fatty acids of the vaccenic acid and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) type are said to predominate, which do not seem to have any negative effects. On the contrary: The CLA should be able to help with weight loss. And that’s actually the reason why many people reach for margarine.

Margarine unsuitable for weight loss

Losing weight with regular margarine will not succeed, since it contains about the same number of calories per 100 g as butter. You would have to choose reduced-fat margarine. Their composition may save calories, but this does not make the margarine healthier or more valuable from a nutritional point of view.

As with low-fat butter, the same applies to low-calorie margarine: the lighter, the more water it contains, and the more emulsifiers, stabilizers, and flavors are required.

Margarine: A Good Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Margarine is often advertised as being particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Take a close look at the omega-3 content and calculate it per serving. Usually, it is far too low to have a beneficial effect.

Some margarine manufacturers also indicate the content on the product or on their website, e.g. B. Vitaquell on the in-house omega-3 margarine: “The positive effect can be achieved with a daily intake of 0.25 g DHA. Just one serving (10g) provides 0.03g of DHA.” So you can see that you would need to eat at least 80g of the margarine – an unrealistically high amount – to get anywhere close to 0.25g of DHA.

Also, note whether it contains short-chain omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid) or actually long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA). You can consume the short-chained ones in much higher quality and also in larger quantities with 1 tablespoon of linseed oil or hemp oil. You might also use rapeseed oil in the kitchen, which also contains a lot of omega-3 fatty acids.

If long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are included, make sure that they may come from fish oil, which is important if you are vegetarian or vegan. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids can also be made from algae. Then the corresponding algae oil is processed in the margarine and is also declared as such.

Buy margarine – what the advertising promises

Some margarine is advertised with terms such as “cholesterol-free”, “gluten-free” and “lactose-free”. On the one hand, margarine can actually contain cholesterol and lactose because, as explained above, they often also contain animal ingredients.

However, when a purely plant-based margarine is advertised with these statements, it sounds a little strange. Because high-quality margarine is naturally free of cholesterol, gluten, and lactose. This is as pointless as advertising lettuce with it.

So if a manufacturer wants to emphasize the quality of his margarine and uses terms like the ones mentioned, then he obviously cannot say much more about his margarine. It would be much more helpful to go into the type and quality of the fats contained, the trans fat content, the omega-6-omega-3 ratio, or similar.

Advertising claim: Lowers cholesterol levels

“Actively lowers cholesterol” is another slogan. This is how becel pro-active is advertised – a margarine that unfortunately also only contains “vegetable oils and fats”, without the buyer being informed which oils and fats are involved. The added plant sterols are said to contribute to the cholesterol-lowering effect.

These are secondary plant substances that are naturally contained in vegetable oils or oilseeds. Vegetable sterols are also added to the becel margarine. This is because plant sterols are structurally related to cholesterol and therefore compete with cholesterol for absorption.

In this way, not so much cholesterol is actually absorbed from the food (e.g. if you eat an egg with toast with becel margarine), which of course also lowers the cholesterol level a little.

But that only works as long as you eat the corresponding margarine. If you stop eating one day or eat less margarine, your cholesterol will rise again. You also have to eat a decent amount of margarine – 30 g daily – to even experience a positive effect.

At the same time, one has to fear that the plant sterols have unfavorable side effects: They are said to promote deposits in the blood vessels, which in turn would not be good for the heart at all – and that is exactly why one wants to eat the cholesterol-lowering margarine.

Advertising claim: Rich in unsaturated fatty acids

If margarine says “rich in unsaturated fatty acids”, this is not necessarily a good sign. The legislature has regulated exactly when this type of advertising may be used, namely if it contains at least 30 percent linoleic acid.

However, linoleic acid is not necessarily the fatty acid that you want to eat so much of. On the contrary: In order to achieve a favorable omega-6-omega-3 ratio, one should precisely reduce the linoleic acid in the diet.

Swapping butter for margarine?

If you don’t want to eat butter for ethical reasons, you can definitely switch to margarine, but it probably won’t make you healthier. This was also shown by a study published by the University of North Carolina Health Care in 2016.

The researchers report that the use of vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid does not appear to reduce cardiovascular risk, as has been believed for decades. The risk of dying prematurely also did not decrease if one preferred to use oils rich in linoleic acid in the kitchen. However, the cholesterol levels fell with the help of the oil – an interesting indication that low cholesterol levels do not necessarily have to affect cardiovascular risk.

To make matters worse, the researchers found that linoleic acid-rich oils may be even more harmful to heart health than other fats. As we have already reported several times, linoleic acid may have an inflammatory effect. Namely when you consume too many omega-6 acids and too few omega-3 fatty acids at the same time. The ideal ratio is between 4:1 and 6:1 (Omega 6:Omega 3).

Oils rich in linoleic acid include sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, pumpkin seed oil, and grapeseed oil. There is also a type of sunflower oil that is rich in oleic acid (high-oleic sunflower oil), which is often used as frying oil because oleic acid can be heated well. Such sunflower oil contains only little linoleic acid, so it does not belong to the oils rich in linoleic acid.

The supposed benefits of margarine

Let’s summarize: Margarine is said to be better than butter and is therefore often referred to in the media or in test reports as “nutritionally valuable, e.g. due to good fatty acid composition” because they:

  • contains no cholesterol
  • contains less saturated fat
  • has fewer trans fats than butter
  • can also be spread chilled
  • Can be kept for months (butter only about 4 weeks)

However, you now know that the first four traits are not necessarily an advantage. Unsaturated fats are not healthier than saturated fats, saturated fats are not unhealthy and cholesterol is not necessarily associated with disease

Indeed, the trans fat content of margarine is often lower than that of butter, but the trans fats in margarine are of a different structure and quality than those in butter. Butter trans fats are natural in origin and are even said to have health benefits. Trans fats in margarine, on the other hand, are the result of industrial processing. They only have harmful properties.

Many kinds of margarine are spreadable by adding emulsifiers, and the added vitamins are of synthetic origin.

This is what a recommendable margarine looks like

A recommended margarine from the supermarket, organic shop, or health food store would have to meet the following points:

It should be made from rapeseed oil and not sunflower oil due to the better omega-6-omega-3 ratio and the higher content of monounsaturated fatty acids. (Exception: if sunflower oil is only a small proportion, it is tolerable, e.g. in Bio-Alsan).

·Ideally, it shouldn’t contain palm oil – if it does, it shouldn’t have been cut down in the rainforest, so it should come from sustainable organic farming.

· Carrot juice concentrate should be included instead of synthetic beta carotene.

·The only emulsifier should be the harmless sunflower lecithin.

· Animal ingredients, salt, preservatives, and off-putting flavors should be completely absent.

· Hardening should not take place during production so that no trans fatty acids can develop (hardening can be recognized by the note: “contains hardened / partially hardened fats”).

·The ingredients should come from controlled organic cultivation.

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Written by John Myers

Professional Chef with 25 years of industry experience at the highest levels. Restaurant owner. Beverage Director with experience creating world-class nationally recognized cocktail programs. Food writer with a distinctive Chef-driven voice and point of view.

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