Butter Vs. Margarine

Chef Orange -

My roommate and I are having an ongoing debate of butter vs. margarine. She was raised on it, and believes it to be healthier than eating actual butter. I was raised believing that real butter is the only way to go, and argue that the artifical ingridents are actually worse for you. What is your take?

thanks -

All Buttered Up


I’m going to have to side with you on this one. Margarine is made by hydrogenating vegetable oils and adding artificial butter flavor. Basically, that means that manufacturers of margarine take regular old corn oil, process it with nickel, and then expose it to hydrogen gas under heat and pressure. The unsaturated vegetable oil fat molecules change shape and take on hydrogen to become artificially saturated. This allows the margarine to mimic butter, as saturated fats solidify at higher temperatures than unsaturated fats (i.e., in the refrigerator, not the freezer), and hold their shape at room temperature. The nickel is then strained out, having fulfilled its purpose as a catalyst to the reaction.

While it is true that the hydrogenation process mimics the saturated fat content of butter, I’d prefer my fat to be presented to me in its natural format: oil when oil is called for; butter when butter is called for. That’s a personal choice. Somewhat more troubling to me are the potential side effects of exposure to large quantities of artificial butter flavoring: the potential of serious health problems due to one of its key ingredients, diacetyl.

From NewsTarget: Two workers’ unions want the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to limit workers’ exposure to an artificial butter flavoring ingredient that has been found to cause a serious lung condition called bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn workers’ lung.”

The Teamsters Union and United Food and Commercial Workers say that the ingredient, diacetyl, has caused the condition in dozens of workers and they have accused OSHA of doing nothing about it. OSHA currently does not mandate limited worker exposure to diacetyl, but has guidelines that suggest ways to do so.

From OSHA: Potential symptoms: Eye, mucous membrane, respiratory system, skin irritation; persistent cough, phlegm production, wheezing, dyspnea (shortness of breath); unusual fatigue; episodes of mild fever or generalized aches; severe skin rashes. [...] One of four rats died after a 6-hour exposure to vapors from heated (55°C) artificial butter flavoring containing 285 ppm diacetyl (~64% of total VOCs), but no deaths occurred among groups of six rats exposed to 203 ppm diacetyl (~68% of total VOCs) or 352 ppm diacetyl (~61% of total VOCs) (Hubbs et al., 2002).

These effects are as a result of large-scale exposure to the vapors of this chemical; and the OSHA website notes that the workers suffering from bronchiolitis obliterans have been exposed to other volatile chemicals in addition to diacetyl. Still, the death of a rat exposed to one sample of it is troubling; and there’s a reason that it’s called ‘popcorn workers’ lung.’ I’d rather not be eating too much of any chemical with that sort of aura around it—an easy goal to accomplish when you limit most of your food intake to natural foodstuffs. Not to mention the fact that when you cook with margarine, you’re esposing yourself to its vapors.

But if your roommate doesn’t want to buy/use real butter, there’s nothing you can do to make her. Buy butter for yourself and let her eat margarine.

10 Responses to “Butter Vs. Margarine”

  1. Melvin Harmon Says:

    >> margarine (the trans-free tub or liquid kinds) is still recommended over butter

  2. jwsharrard Says:

    The article you reference concentrates solely on fat contents. The advice is no doubt medically sound and should no doubt be followed by individuals with concerns about heart conditions or cholesterol levels.

    That having been said, the article also concentrates solely on the fat contents of butter and margarine and does not examine the flavoring agents used to impart the butter flavor to margarine or the potential health risks associated with them. Based on the artificiality of the flavor, I stand by my original assessment that natural is favorable to artificial.

    Additionally, the article lauds the margarine manufacturers for reducing levels of trans fat by “switch[ing] their first ingredient from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to water or liquid vegetable oil.” (emphasis mine). Basically, there’s a good chance that “0-trans fat margarine” is a watered-down version of the old product, or it contains a higher percentage of plain old oil. Again, I stand by my original assessment: use oil when oil is appropriate; use butter when butter is called for.

    There’s no reason to slather margarine or butter on bread. Really, good bread often requires nothing. But, if one feels the need for a spread, one can infuse olive oil with herbs and spices by heating them gently in the oil. Strain any whole garlic from the oil (clove garlic stored in oil carries the risk of botulism) and save for use as a bread dipper. That way, you get the benefits of olive oil’s low content of saturated fat and use a natural food product to flavor your bread.

    When it comes to baking, well, there’s no substitute for butter like there’s no substitute for sugar. By all means, individuals with identified health risks should follow their doctor’s advice (I’m not a medical professional and can’t advise you on the best dietary regiment for your particular condition); but when it comes to taste, flavor, and lack of artificially-concocted chemicals; nothing beats the real deal.

  3. zp Says:

    I’ve got a question. When I put my homemade olive oil vinegarette in the fridge and IT solidifies, have I hydrogenated it? Is it suddenly less healthy? I could look this up, somewhere, but I thought you might know.

  4. Betty Says:

    Are product manufacturers required to list diacetyl on the ingredients label? Or does it masquerade under the ubiquitous “artificial flavoring”?

  5. Betty Says:

    Is anyone familiar with Corman’s light butter? Corman is a company in Belgium. They also sell products in France and Denmark under the names Carlsbourgh and Balade. For a short time, I was able to purchase their light butter in the US. It had fabulous butter flavor (because it is REAL butter but they somehow magically removed a lot of that fat). Sadly, Corman’s light butter disappered from my grocery shelf never to be seen again.

  6. Emma Says:

    I work with the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers so I’m well informed on this subject. Have you looked at a margarine label lately? You won’t find any soft or liquid margarine that contain trans fat, and trans fat levels of stick margarines have been greatly reduced. Margarine manufacturers continue to be the leaders in the food industry in removing trans fats from products, and they continue to innovate the market by adding healthy, functional ingredients such as antioxidants, omega fatty acids, and fat-soluble vitamins to products.

    The margarine industry has made such an impact in providing healthy product that in 2005, when the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the MyPyramid food guidance system was issued, liquid oils, and soft, trans fat-free margarine spreads were classified by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report as helping to meet the essential fatty acids and Vitamin E needs of consumers.

    To learn more about the benefits of margarine products, check out these links: http://www.margarine.org, http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/transfat.html#choice1 and http://margarine.org/pdf/inthenews_092906-nytimes.pdf

  7. jwsharrard Says:

    ZP– You haven’t hydrogenated it; you’ve just gelled it by cooling it down. As it warms back up to room temperature, your oil returns to its liquefied state. Even as a gel, though, your oil most likely would not hold its shape as a stick… so, don’t worry: refrigerating fats does not alter their molecular structure.

    Emma– thanks for your input regarding fat levels in margarine.  Your comments confirm what Melvin had to say.  I’m curious, though, to your take on the diacetyl question, and your take on artificial flavoring ingredients in general: do you have any qualms about taste manipulation through chemistry?

  8. xpdience Says:

    In reference to the margarine maker above, it is simply impossible to believe labels like that on products formerly famous for their trans-fat content since the FDA allows manufacturers to claim any amount up to half a gram as ‘zero’.

    The Republican genius at work.

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