sliced stick of butter

What’s the Difference Between Butter and Margarine?

A factoid warning of the dangers of margarine consumption has been reposted and shared extensively on social media over the years. Among the claims: Margarine was originally made to fatten turkeys, it is only “one molecule” shy of being plastic and shares many of the same ingredients as paint.

What’s the truth? We went to nutrition expert Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton at Penn State University for some answers:

How about the claim that margarine was developed originally to fatten turkeys? 

Dr. Kris-Etherton: I checked several sources and this is the consistent conclusion. It dates back to 1860s France and has nothing to do with fattening turkeys. Napoleon wanted a delicious alternative to butter to help feed his army and the French people. He started a competition for people to invent such a spread and it was Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès’ recipe that became margarine. The original formula was based on beef tallow and milk in combination with margaric acid, and was called oleo-margarine. Current margarine products are made with vegetable oil blends.

And, the claim about margarine’s similarity with plastic and paint?

Dr.Kris-Etherton: No truth whatsoever!  Margarine is made from liquid vegetable oil. The author of this article does a very good job debunking the myth that margarine is bad for consumers.

So, what exactly is margarine and what is butter?

Dr. Kris-Etherton: Margarine is a “spread” made from vegetable oils while butter is made from churning heavy cream from milk-producing animals (dairy cows, goats).

What are the nutritional differences between the two? 

Dr. Kris-Etherton: Butter is high is saturated fat.  It is a source of dietary cholesterol.  Margarine is high in unsaturated fat (monos, polys, either or both).  It is low in saturated fat and does not contain any dietary cholesterol.

What is your advice to people trying to decide what’s best for them? 

Dr. Kris-Etherton: Choose a soft margarine over butter as a way to substitute unsaturated fat for saturated fat. Use margarine sparingly because it is a source of calories.

Butter and margarine are similar, but distinct foods. Butter is made from heavy cream and is high in saturated fat. Margarine is made from vegetable oils and is low in saturated fat.