+ Well Nourished | Margarine or Butter Healthier

A Closer Look at Processed foods – Is Margarine or Butter Healthier?

Is margarine or butter healthier, I’m often asked?  For me, it’s butter all the way and I’ll explain why.

This post is yes, about margarine (and spreadable butter, softened butter etc;) and how detrimental to your health they are.  We move back into the territory of vegetable oils and why you really need to avoid consuming them.  Just a bit more information following on from the recommendations I made on my post about fats and oils.  If you’ve missed it you can catch up here.

Again with so many different varieties and brands, I have just picked some commonly found ingredients to analyse.  Starting with the primary, and most concerning ingredient in all of these margarine and processed spreads…

Vegetable oil
Let’s just clarify that vegetable oils are technical, in fact, seed oils.  The oil is extracted from the cheapest, poorest quality, often genetically modified seeds using high temperatures which make them rancid (stinky and off).  When it seems the last drop of oil is extracted, chemicals are used to extract just a little more.

In order for a seed oil to be made solid (like butter) it then needs to be hydrogenated using a toxic heavy metal called nickel as a catalyst (or to put it simply, it’s chemically manipulated).  This process produces a very dangerous form of fat called trans fats which are know to cause heart disease, cancer, infertility and have been implicated in many other degenerative disease (as they promote inflammation).  Canola is the seed of choice in many margarines as its fatty acid structure means that is doesn’t require as much hydrogenation as other seed oils and therefore yields lower levels of trans-fatty acids.  Regardless, the product ends up containing trans fats, for which there is no such thing as a safe amount (trans fats scare me more than any other ingredient in processed foods).

The end result of this process (I’ve read), is a smelly, dark grey/ brown chemical mess that needs to be deodorised and treated to be palatable.

Current dietary guidelines state that dietary fat (especially of the saturated kind) causes coronary heart disease, obesity (and therefore) type 2 diabetes.  I can’t say it any better than David Gillespi in his book Big Fat Lies – “Apparently, some of the fat we eat causes our cholesterol to rise and since high cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease, we should stop eating fat if we want to avoid that.  However, the (scientific) evidence doesn’t support any of these claims about fat.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that the things we use to replace dietary animal fat (usually sugar and seed oils) are likely to be the real cause of not just heart disease, but also of type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity.”

NOTE – Seed oils are used in so much more than just making margarine.  They are also used as cooking oils, in spreadable butter, salad dressings, mayonnaise, in cakes, pastries, crackers, sauces and many brands of bread.  Also all fast food or commercial deep fryers use vegetable oils.  Almost every fat we put in our mouths from processed foods is a seed oil.  Prior to the industrialisation of our food chain, we survived on primarily animal-derived fats and coconut fats, (and also without the current rates of obesity and disease).

Is messing with the type of fat we have evolved to consume our undoing?

But back to margarine.  The few other ingredients are…
Water and salt – no explanation required.
Emulsifiers (soy lecithin, 471) – 471 is a synthetically derived fat that helps to disperse water molecules through the fat.
Preservative 202 – Linked to liver damage, behavioural problems, asthma and recommended to avoid if you have kidney or heart problems.
Food acid (lactic) – no known side effects unless allergic.
Milk solids – skim milk powder used to colour the product.
Maltodextrin –  is made from treated or hydrolysed grain starch. It gives a fat like body to the margarine and extends its shelf-life.
Natural colour – (beta-carotene, curcumin or turmeric) –  Is used to turn a greyish brown like concoction yellow. Because they are described as natural doesn’t mean they are safe as many natural colours are associated with gene damage and risk to conception and cancer.
Vitamins A & D – mandatory fortification
Flavour – Information on this in not available.

To conclude…
Margarine is made by an industrialised, chemical process.  Butter is made by churning cream or milk.  I can find no good reason to consume margarine (or any other softened butter or vegetable oil containing spread) – ever!

Usually, I follow up these posts with a healthy alternative recipe.  Butter is so simple to make, especially if you have a high-speed blender or processor (like the Thermomix).  Search online for very simple instructions on how to do so.  Or, buy a butter preferably made from grass fed or organic dairy.  Or just buy butter!

These few healthy alternatives, spreads or toppings are also worth a mention:
Nut butter like ABC (Almond, Brazil, Cashew spread)
Coconut oil
Coconut butter
Extra Virgin Olive oil (sprinkled with dukkah …mmmm)

Want to offload the seed oils in your cupboards?  I hate waste, so how about using it to make a batch of play dough?

Want more like this?  
Other posts you may like to read are my previous post on Fats and Oils or Coconut oil.
Also, this David Gillespi and Sarah Wilson podcast are worth a listen for practical tips when supermarket shopping, click here.

Love to receive questions?  Regardless of the health claims on the labels, nothing good comes from consuming any of the spreads or margarine in stores at present (had to say it just one more time)!


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  • Zoe

    I totally agree but my parents won’t listen! They think because they are using the heart healthy cholesterol lowering margarine that has the heart foundation tick, they are doing the right thing! Mum thinks the small amount of butter she uses is her guilty treat! How do I convince them otherwise? Can you tell me more about that particular margarine so I could show them?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Zoe, it is tricky to convince others. Perhaps just share any information you come across (ie; you can lead a horse to water). You can also check out my response to Erin re – the Heart Foundation. The interesting thing about plant sterols is that whilst they do reduce cholesterol, many studies have associated their consumption with an INCREASE in the risk of cardiovascular disease. As well as binding cholesterol, they also bind with essential fat soluble vitamins which is obviously detrimental. Much more info ahead. Hope this helps and I do understand your frustration. G x

  • Lucy

    Very interesting! I’m already forwarding this to the rest of my family! x

  • Erin

    Hi Georgia,
    I used to eat butter (and still love the taste of it!) but I recently discovered I’m dairy intolerant so switched back to margarine (a dairy free version). I always thought that butter was worse for you as it had too much saturated fat with margarine having more of the good fats and our marg in Australia being virtually trans fat free? That’s what the heart foundation is saying anyway although I agree- it is very processed.

    • Hi Erin. Yes trans fats are at the lowest they’ve been in Australia at the moment. However only a 2% increase in trans fats in the diet increases the risk of heart disease by 23 per cent which demonstrates that there really is no safe level for trans fats. Sadly the Heart Foundation bases its guidelines on the faulty and outdated belief that saturated fats cause cardio vascular disease. I have some great links to more info on fats to come in the following weeks which will hopefully reinforce the need to avoid margarine and vegetable oils. Until then try Ghee (clarified butter has the milk solids removed) as a spread. I also love olive oil brushed on bread instead of butter. Thanks for your comments, G x

  • Rosanne O’Brien

    Hey G what brand of butter is your preference?

    • Hi Rosie. It varies depending upon availability and cost. My first preference is raw butter (and of course the most hard to come by option). Next an organic, grass fed butter. I just buy what is best priced at the time – might be macro organics or I stock up when Wrays have a butter special. G x

  • Tracey

    What about olive oil spreads? Are they just as bad as butter? Also why is spreadable butter different to other butter? I grew up on margarine and I’m trying to convince my mum how terrible it it is, I will link her to this page!

  • Tracey

    For example nuttelex (and most olive oil spreads) has no trans fat but in the list of ingredients it has vegetable oils, is this bad then?

  • Unfortunately anything with vegetable oil of any kind, including nuttelex is a refined and processed food and it is not just olive oil. They are “virtually” trans fat free (not completely). Studies have concluded that a very very small increase in dietary trans fats is associated with the development of heart disease and cancer. Not a risk I’m willing to take. Your call. I know of only one spreadable butter with no vegetable oil (sorry can’t think of the name but just read labels). I personally just pop regular butter in a butter dish on the counter top – perfectly spreadable. You can also make your own by mixing a ‘safe oil’ like olive or macadamia with butter. Hope that helps, G x
    PS also be very cautious of a new wave of margarine that will be trans fat free but it’s replaced with a ‘new’ chemical who’s long term effects are not known.

  • Michelle Ford

    Yes since reading David Gillespies books and Sarah Wilson, I have read so much more since then. I have started making my own butter which can work out cheaper if I am smart about it 🙂 and tastes great too.

    • It is so easy to make butter, I’ve even done it accidentally by whipping cream for too long! Thanks for sharing, G x

  • Anthony Steele

    Butter contains 3.3g of trans fat per 100g. You can make the argument for butter however you wish, but you really shouldn’t use trans fat content as many spreads contain less trans fat than this.

  • Natural trans fats found in butter and meat are thought to be used by the body entirely differently than artificial trans fats. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is one such natural trans fat with much research to support its health benefits.

    • Anthony Steele

      I see. Thanks.

  • Trudy Turner

    Easy recipe for spreadable butter. In a food processor combine 250g of butter with one cup of olive oil. Blitz. Store in fridge. Can be spread on sandwiches toast etc straight from the fridge.

  • Yes, a great idea, thanks for sharing G x

  • Melody Freestone

    I have always been a butter advocate and trash talked margarine. Unfortunately I had to give butter up a year ago due to dairy intolerance, this was the hardest part for me as I love butter! I have found it so hard to find a suitable substitute for baking and everyday use. I have resorted to Nuttelex (which I despise using) to have on things like corn cakes with vegemite. Is Ghee my only tasty alternative? That would send me broke with the amount of baking I do!! Help!

    • Hi Melody, ghee is definitely an alternative. Coconut oil is another – though I find it best suited to baking items that need toughness (like a crunchy cookie or bar). I also sometimes use macadamia nut oil as a substitute to butter in baking (though another expensive option). Have you tried a cultured butter? I’ve found some daily intolerant people are okay with a small amount. I’d hate to give up butter too – hope these tips helps a little? G x

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