Butter, which has been around since the domestication of cattle, is when the cream is churned until it solidifies. In the US, the butter needs to be 80% milk fat and 20% water and milk solids, according to the Food Network Encyclopedia of Food Terms. Unsalted butter is made with no salt and is the most common type of butter used in recipes. Butter also comes whipped and in tubs like margarine. Reduced-calorie butter is available, although the product is cut with gelatin and skim milk.

In 2010, Americans consumed five pounds of butter a year compared with 3.5 pounds of margarine, according to the Wall Street Journal. That much butter is equal to 23 sticks, which is not so bad in comparison to Americans in the 20s, who ate around 72 sticks of butter a year. 

Margarine was invented in the 1860s by French chemist H. Mège-Mouriès. It used to consist of melted fat, milk, and salt. Now margarine is made from vegetable oils such as soybean and palm oil. Margarine products come in tubs, and can keep consistency in room temperature in a way butter cannot.

“Margarine usually tops butter when it comes to heart health. Margarine is made from vegetable oils, so it contains unsaturated “good” fats — polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These types of fats help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol when substituted for saturated fat,” said Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D in Mayo Clinic’s Expert Answers column.

“The more solid the margarine, the more trans fat it contains,” said Zeratsky.

In fact, because margarine comes from plant oils, it was touted to be better than butter in every way. While some margarine is better than butter, not all are.

What nutrition-conscious people are looking for are fats. Not all fats are bad. The best kind is unsaturated fats, found in heart-healthy foods like salmon, avocado, and olive oil. While butter has saturated fats, margarine has trans fats. Saturated and trans fats are both known to higher cholesterol, but trans fats are more closely linked to heart disease.

Rule of thumb suggests that food that is less processed is healthier, and butter is less processed than margarine. While someone can make their own butter at home, that same person cannot make margarine without certain equipment.

However, when it comes down to nutrients, the best choice would have to be a soft margarine fortified with vitamins. This kind of margarine is found in tubs, and several brands add plant sterols. Plant sterols are substances in plants that, when eaten as part of a healthy diet, may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Moderation is key. Vegetables, protein, grains, fruits, and dairy are essential to a healthy lifestyle. But when walking down the grocery aisles, it’s best to keep looking at the nutrition labels in regards to what’s really going on your toast.

 – Aitana Yvette Mallari, Correspondent (Food)