All I want is to put a pat of butter on my toast in the morning, but when I go grocery shopping, I stand in the dairy aisle for 10 minutes trying to choose a healthy option. Butter? Margarine? Which one is healthiest? — Butterfingers
This is definitely an area of confusion, Butterfingers. I’ve done a little research to make sure your toast doesn’t always land butter-side down.
Before I get into the butter half of this article, we need to go back to the basic facts. Saturated fat, the kind of fat that can raise “bad” cholesterol levels, should make up less than 10 percent of our daily calories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines. Too much can increase the risk for heart disease or stroke, according to the American Heart Association.
Another type of fat to watch out for is trans fat, which is also linked with high levels of “bad” cholesterol. Dairy and meat products do contain a small amount of naturally occurring trans fat, but the primary source in our diet is the unnatural, human-engineered kind: partially hydrogenated oils.
With this in mind, let’s look at how butter, margarine and clarified butter measure up.
Per the USDA, butter is defined as a food product made from milk and/or cream that contains at least 80 percent of milk fat. A tablespoon of butter clocks in around 100 calories, 12 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat and 0.5 grams of trans fat (this is the naturally occurring kind).
Butter gets a bad rap for its saturated fat content. For a 2,000-calorie diet, just one tablespoon of butter is 35 percent of the recommended daily saturated fat intake.
Margarine, on the other hand, is created from vegetable oils. A plant-based product, margarine contains less saturated fat and more healthy fat than butter (win!), but before I butter margarine up, keep reading.
Since margarine is made from vegetable oil, a liquid, it must undergo hydrogenation to become a solid. Hydrogenation is the unnatural rearrangement of the molecules in vegetable oil to make it solid at room temperature.
This process can create partially hydrogenated oils, which wreak havoc on the body. In fact, in an attempt to prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths every year, the FDA passed a law in 2015 which will ban partially hydrogenated oils in all food products by June 2018.
If you’re watching your saturated fat intake and decide to choose margarine over butter, look for margarines without partially hydrogenated oils — typically found in a tub or spray form. (Notice that they’re more soft and liquid-y.) The stick margarines are where you will run into trouble.
Lastly, we come to ghee, a form of clarified butter. Clarified butter is simply butter with the milk solids — lactose, whey, casein, and minerals — removed. Ghee is popular in South Asian cooking.
One tablespoon of ghee butter contains around 135 calories, 15 grams of fat, 9 grams of saturated fat and zero trans fat, according to the USDA.
Despite its high saturated fat content, findings of a study published by the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry showed no link between ghee consumption in rats and high cholesterol or high levels of fat in the blood. Interestingly, cholesterol and triglyceride levels decreased when ghee made up 2.5 to 10 percent of dietary fat intake. However, don’t go out and eat a bucket of ghee — scientists recommend that it be consumed in moderation.
When it’s all “spread” and done, you can’t stick a label on individual foods without looking at them in the context of the rest of your diet. If you have high cholesterol, speak with your doctor or a registered dietitian for specific diet recommendations.
Otherwise, consume butter, ghee, and partially hydrogenated oil-free margarine in moderation, and limit saturated fat intake. A well-rounded diet full of variety is your bread and butter for optimal health.