Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Confused Day Tuesday: Margarine is One Molecule Away From Plastic

I'll preface this post by saying I am not a food scientist, nor am I an expert on margarine or butter, or even on saturated and trans fats.  However, I am a supermarket dietitian who works hard to make sure food doesn't cause my clients or customers of the store anxiety.  It shouldn't (read this post about other foods that may cause "food anxiety", but shouldn't!).  In addition, before I continue on with this post, I want to tell you that I completely understand and respect any alternative opinions you might have about the topic at hand (this is true with any post I write).  My goal as a dietitian has always been to make health, wellness, and most of all nutrition, simple and understandable.  In my opinion no food should ever be off limits, we just need to know where to draw the "limit line".  And that choice is, more or less, up to you.  It shouldn't be complicated, but lately I think we make it complicated. You may not agree with every point I make, and that's fine, we all have our own opinions.  Please respect mine.  Take it or leave it, but read and see if you can learn something!

Source: iStock Photo

One month ago I was at work doing a food demo and someone got slightly angry because I used butter.  He didn't yell and scream or anything, but he certainly let his opinions be known after the demo was over.  That same week I did a recipe sampling in the dairy aisle, using a specific brand of margarine to make a healthier cereal "on the go bar".  Someone left a comment card on my desk the following week that proclaimed their disgust for my choice of margarine.  It's pretty clear, people are attached to their opinions on choosing butter or margarine (or I suppose you could argue that someone people choose neither, as you could use coconut oil or olive oil too, or....avocado as you can see below!).

So who is right?  Which fat source is best? If my recipe calls for butter, should I substitute margarine?  If I make a piece of toast, should I be spreading it with butter? And if I choose margarine, should it be made with olive oil or flax? And if I choose butter, should it be salt free or salt-full? So many questions! In my opinion, it should be whatever you prefer, because let's face it, no matter what you choose you still need to limit your intake, it's just solid fat! These products fall in that small yellow sliver of the old Food Pyramid ("MyPyramid", remember that?).  Choose whichever you like best, and stick to the proper serving size, enjoy, and move along.

With the advent of the new USDA Dietary Guidelines, and the coinciding ChooseMyPlate,  you now have a limit for your "SoFAS" (aka: Solid Fats and Added Sugars).  The limit is typically given in calories, and it's normally somewhere between 100 and 300 calories per day, per person (visit the website to find your own personal recommendations).  Notice below, margarine and butter are both considered solid fats and basically 100% empty calories.
Source: www.ChooseMyPlate.gov

So, we know they shouldn't make up a major part of your diet anyway, but it can still be hard to make a choice between the two (and the hundreds of options among each group).  Here are some points about margarine and butter.  If you haven't made up your mind about them yet, maybe these will help.


1) The myths: It is NOT one molecule away from plastic. Period.  You've heard this before, right? Well, water (H2O) is also one molecule away from hydrogen peroxide (H2O2).  Do you drink water?  Exactly.  So, this myth about margarine and plastic is just as I said, a myth.  Don't believe me? Prove me wrong. I dare you.  And even if you did, who cares?  Clearly it's meaningless. I would still eat margarine, just like I still drink water.

2) What to watch out for: Trans fats. Period.  If you see any trans fats listed on the nutrition fact panel, don't buy the margarine. I don't even care if you only use it once a year. Don't buy it.


And, if you see "0g trans fats" listed on your label, please still look at the ingredient list to make sure there are zero hydrogenated oils listed, because our wonderful FDA allows food companies to say "0 g trans fat" even if it contains up to .5 grams per serving.  Lame-O.  They do make stick margarines without hydrogenated oils at all, so why not buy those?!  Ok, so they might be about 50 cents more expensive, but trust me it's worth it. 

3)  How it's made: Check out the history of margarine for an insight on how it's made.  It's true, compared to butter margarine has a lot of crazy ingredients.  But they really aren't that crazy.  In fact, most of them are terms that are familiar to most people.  And let's not forget, margarines (or....solid fat) aren't a main part of someones diet anyway, so.....should it really matter?!  You will notice that a lot of margarines have long ingredient lists because companies are turning them into "functional foods".

4)  Different types:  There are many.  Too many to list.  Some have "added benefits" like I said above, and others are just plain old margarine.  Some are made with olive oil, some are made with canola, some have flax added, others have plant sterols and stanols added (these may help lower your cholesterol).  Want an unbiased opinion? I recommend the website and/or FREE phone app "Fooducate".

5)  My favorites:  use two different margarines; one for baking and one for spreading on bread and/or sauteing (don't know how to choose margarines for different purposes?  Read the label, they always tell you!).  I like the margarines that are lighter in calories for spreading (for Nick, he's really the only one who uses the margarine on toast, whereas I prefer peanut butter or avocado, or....nothing at all).  The product below only has 50 calories and 1.5 grams of saturated fat per Tbsp. Awesome.  And of course, ZERO hydrogenated oils (this is key).   Plus, check out the bonus vitamins!  No, I do not choose margarines based on their "add ins" like omega-3 and vitamin D, or whatever.  But it's not something I frown upon either (although I do think some people buy their margarines based on those add-ins...and too often you have to eat several servings for it to even matter!  Not good).  This one below happens to be make with olive oil, which I actually like because of the taste.

While I don't bake much, I always have these sticks of margarine in my fridge in case I get a hankering for a cookie. Like I said above, the extra omegas don't really impress me, because I don't count on margarines to give me my daily dose of omega (and frankly, neither should you) but I like the fact that this brand is free of hydrogenated oils, and lower in cholesterol and saturated fat than butter (and compared to other margarines).  Do I always buy this particular brand?  No.  Because like I said, I don't bake a lot, so I don't think it would hurt to use the real stuff (aka butter) sometimes, I just choose not to.

And here are some "Best Bites" according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.


1) The myths: Saturated fat is bad? Maybe not.  The research is so inconclusive these days, it's absurd.  From what I've learned thus far, out of all the saturated fats, palmitic acid seems to be the one with the most "negative press".  The others?  The verdict is still out.  Notice coconut oil and dark chocolate are made up of mostly Lauric Acid, and Stearic Acid, respectively.  Those are supposedly some of the good ones!

Out of all the saturated fats, I've heard the most negative information about palmitic acid.  Sadly.  So, because butter is mainly palmitic acid, you really should limit your servings.

2) What to watch out for:  Saturated fats, and sodium.  Those are the two things that tend to be pretty high in butter, but....you may not have to worry if you stick to the appropriate servings...right?!

3)  How it's made:  This is where a lot of people get turned on. The process for making butter is relatively simple and "natural".  Read about it here on Wikepedia.  Technically you could make your own butter, which is definitely appealing to some consumers.

Bottom Line?  Neither butter or margarine are good in large amounts, so whichever you choose you still need to watch your portions and total daily servings.  If you prefer a more simple product, with less ingredients, butter is typically the best choice, but if you're looking for some added "bonuses" like omega-3 or in my opinion the most potentially beneficial, plant sterols and stanols, or even lower calorie options, certain margarines might be your product of choice.  I liked this article from Fooducate, which discussed the question of which is better for you, butter or margarine? Their answer was short, sweet, and to the point.

Don't want to use either product on your toast? Use avocado, or coconut oil (but this is still a solid fat even if Dr. Oz says it's good for weight loss you will be defeating the purpose if you use more than a serving or two a day!).

In our household, when we don't use margarine, we use avocado or peanut butter.

Don't want to use butter or margarine for your sauteing? Don't. Use oil (like olive oil)!  You don't have to use butter or margarine, but I hope this post was helpful if you weren't sure which one to choose.

QUESTION:  Go ahead, tell me, which do you use? Or, do you prefer oils?  

Thanks for reading!

The Candid Rd


  1. this is extremely helpful! I am always so confused about which one to choose- I will definitely start looking at the trans fat from now on! thanks!

  2. Like you, I prefer avocado on my toast! I have some butter in the fridge that's getting so old that I'll soon have to toss it. Great points what to look for if you select margarine.

  3. Such a good post! And funny too! I'm a dietetic intern and we got to see a Wegman's dietitian in action. She dealt with the same kind of problems. Clients/customers really do get caught up in the details and forget you shouldn't be eating that much butter/margarine anyways! I thought it looked kinda fun to educate customers right there in the store!! Do you like it?

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I do love my job, most of the time, but it's sometimes difficult to keep my opinions to myself. Sometimes I just want to say, HELLO! It's margarine, it's a SMALL part of your diet any way, who cares?! It's hard to hold back sometimes. Customers get really angry. It's a lesson in patience, that's for sure.

  4. I'm a senior dietetic student and have been reading your posts for a while now (always love them!)...and I just had to tell you that I thought you did a FANTASTIC job explaining this. I'm definitely going to keep a copy of this on file somewhere :) Thanks!

    1. Glad you found it helpful! Good luck in your dietetic journey :) And of course, thanks for reading!

  5. I mainly use margarine (Becel). We don't put butter/margarine on any of our sandwiches/toast so it's mainly used for baking and foods like mac n cheese. A small tub will last us a good 6-8 weeks! I will buy butter for dinner parties because I think it looks "prettier" on the table. I really have nothing against either product....This was a great post, Gina!

  6. What a fantastic post. Thanks as always Gina for the clear and thorough information.

  7. Great post Gina! I mostly use olive oil or grapeseed oil in cooking, dressing, etc. I use butter in baking. I do like the flavor of a little butter but get grossed out if something is swimming in it. That is about it! :) I just bought coconut oil but forget to use it. What can I say? The Greek blood runs thick so I stand behind my EVOO.

  8. oh goodness, you spoke my every thought.. my every word. Let's stick to basics and not stress to much about the others. I use margarine in baking because it bakes better, never burns. I use butter majority of times but as long as i see real ingredients, i'm good.

  9. Great post! Quite the eye opener and a lot of great info! When I was in college I remember always had the dilemma of which was best-- butter or margarine. Most of my peers said butter because is more "natural" (for lack of a better word). But I agree with what you said, is solid fat and we have to control our portions regardless!!

    I love the avocado idea. I love avocado but never saw it as a "spread". Will have to give that a try!

  10. Butter. Always butter. I come from farming stock, so it's a no brainer. It's a real food, and margarine is a processed product. Plus butter just tastes better!

  11. Such a great summary post, Gina! I think people lose perspective when it comes to food, particularly when they are bombarded on all sides with very specific nutrition recommendations. It's easy to forget the big picture. I use mostly oils for cooking and butter for baking.

    The labeling rules that lead to "0g trans fats" on a product with hydrogenated fats drives me nuts (I'm sure I've complained to you about it before, lol).

  12. Interesting and informative! Thanks for posting. I'm a huge oil fan...olive oil/walnut oil/truffle oil!

  13. Great post! Fantastic info and well presented and easy to read. So glad you are back to blogging. We use butter when recipes call for it, most of the time I stick to olive oil and for a spread I use nut butters. Have a good weekend.