For many years, a major rift has divided this country. I’m not talking about urban versus rural, or even Democrat versus Republican. The split I’m talking about is the ongoing clash between butter and margarine.
Growing up, I’m not sure I was very aware of the difference. My mother bought and used margarine almost exclusively — a residual, most likely, of her lean 1940s upbringing. It didn’t matter much to me; I was used to it, and we all just called it “butter,” anyway.
Over the years, though, I began to notice the butter served at my grandmother’s house on holidays was a lot tastier than the stuff mom spread on my morning toast. Eventually, I came to understand the difference, and began to look forward to my rare encounters with real butter.
Though mom still uses margarine in her kitchen, I’ve been a committed butter convert for years, and have never looked back. Call me extravagant or reckless, but at my house there is just no substitute for the real thing, and for plenty of reasons.
A Question of Taste
I know, I know; flavor is just a matter of opinion. What tastes good to one person won’t necessarily appeal to someone else. Still, if you ask any of the millions of margarine enthusiasts out there why they eschew butter, chances are they’ll talk about the purported health benefits or the lower price.
Though there is no scientific data out there to prove it — short of a few “blind taste tests” undertaken over the years by a number of cooking magazines — most people agree that butter tastes better. Even when a particular brand of margarine wins praise for its flavor, the compliment usually rests on the merit of its resemblance to butter. Real butter is the standard by which we judge other spreads.
Regardless of how many millions of dollars the major margarine manufacturers spend to convince buying public otherwise, there’s just something about the creamy, rich flavor of butter that the imitators have never been able to successfully replicate.
The Skinny on Fats
Like anything else that tastes good, butter has a bad reputation. People assume anything we enjoy must somehow be bad for us. With butter, that assumption has been strengthened by the margarine industry, which, for years, has claimed to be healthier for the heart and better for the waistline.
Those claims are just not true. Both butter and margarine contain about the same amount of calories and overall fat. The attacks leveled at butter are based on its higher content of saturated fat — fat from animal sources linked by the American Heart Association to a higher risk of heart disease.
But a 1994 Harvard University study showed that hydrogenated oils, which are contained in many brands of margarine, nearly double the risk of heart attack. Several other major studies have also indicated a strong correlation between earlier death and consumption of high amounts of trans-fat, the kind of fat contained in most brands of margarine.
It’s only fair to point out that most margarine manufacturers have been working since the mid-90s to reduce the amount of trans-fats in their products. For those on special diets that strictly limit fat intake, low-fat spreads probably remain the best choice. Just beware of deceptive labeling. Even products legally labeled as containing “zero grams” of trans-fat may still contain up to 500 mg per serving
Light margarines and spreads are not hydrogenated, so they are soft and usually sold in tubs rather than sticks. The major problem with such light spreads is their unsuitability for cooking and baking. Because they contain only about 25% fat, they won’t work in most recipes.
Back to Nature
During the latter part of the last century, the natural foods movement was seen by the mainstream as a little bit wacky. More recently, however, people are beginning to embrace the wisdom of returning to the way our great-grandparents once ate.
Like fresh fruits and vegetables or whole grains, butter is a natural, wholesome food. It contains nutrients our bodies need for energy production and other vital processes. Mary Enig, a certified nutritional specialist and researcher in the field of lipid biochemistry, has credited butter consumption with such benefits as a stronger immune system, less vulnerability to arthritis and osteoporosis, gastrointestinal health, and normal thyroid function.
Most of the nutrients in margarine are added in during production. And though organic variants of both butter and margarine are available, margarine generally contains a higher proportion of chemical additives than butter.
Paying the Price
In at least one area, butter lovers must concede a victory to margarine. Butter usually sells for more than twice the price of margarine. Despite all of the rhetoric about margarine being healthier, cost has been its major selling point ever since it was first invented in 1869 as a low-cost butter alternative for the French government to feed to enlisted men.
For those who insist they just can’t afford to put out the extra money for real butter, there can be no real argument. We must all decide how best to live within our means, and most of us learn to do without things other people consider necessities.
For most people, though, the price difference amounts to less than a few dollars each month. Anyone who prefers butter, but continues to buy margarine because it’s cheaper, ought to reexamine the situation. By keeping your intake of fatty spreads to a minimum — something we should all do for our health anyway — the difference becomes negligible. Most of us splurge a little every week on luxuries like coffee or snack foods, so why not treat yourself and your family to the superior flavor, cooking versatility and nutritional benefits of natural butter?