Butter or margarine: What do you spread on your toast?

By Chef Dez | Apr 03, 2013

When it comes to cooking, baking and mealtime, butter has a definite role in the kitchen and at the dinner table. I know that even mentioning the comparison of butter to margarine is going to stir up a lot of opinions, but even with my expectation of receiving negative emails, I am going to express my view.

We use butter in our home on a daily basis for cooking, baking and serving, and I cannot even remember the last time margarine made its way into my refrigerator. In my opinion nothing is better for flavor, richness, melt ability, texture and, in moderation, health benefits.

Butter is one of the oldest and most natural products there is, yet it has taken quite a beating by margarines. Many people buy margarine due to budgetary restrictions, but I would assume that there are just as many, if not more, who purchase it because of perceived health benefits.

Not all margarines are created equal and it is important to read the labels of any product that is manufactured and/or processed, including butter.

If one is purchasing margarine, one of the main things to look out for in an ingredient list is “hydrogenated” or “modified” oil. Hydrogenation is the process used to transform liquid oil into a solid fat at room temperature.

Vegetable shortening, many peanut butters and various margarines are made in this manner and this process creates artificially produced trans fats, which are now considered the worst type of fat for the heart. Butter is not processed using hydrogenation.

As a matter of fact, butter is hardly processed at all. What butter does have is a very small amount of naturally occurring trans fat, also present in the meat of animals, such as beef and lamb.

A 1994 Harvard University study, as well as research from other credible sources, has concluded that a diet high in trans fat doubles the chance for heart attack and decreases life expectancy.

While trans fats can occur naturally, they are most commonly associated with chemical preservative techniques like hydrogenation and health experts recommend that you limit your intake of hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated foodstuffs as much as possible.

It is also important to point out that a two-teaspoon serving of butter usually has no more calories or fat than margarine or olive oil.

So are butter, margarine and vegetable oils bad for you? First of all, let’s point out that the term “bad” is not very definitive. It depends on what you are looking for and it is imperative to keep in mind that there are pros and cons for everything.

Let’s face it; no matter what type of fat you are ingesting on a regular basis, moderation is the key, as with almost everything.

For instance, many doctors may tell you that red wine is good for you, but always in moderation: One glass per day may be fine, but skipping the whole week and having seven glasses on Friday night, not so much.

No matter how you look at it, nothing can replace the flavor and mouth feel of butter, and also the texture created by using it in baked goods.

Dear Chef Dez,

Some recipes call for unsalted butter and also call for salt. Please explain why this is?

-Vivian D.

Surrey, BC

Dear Vivian,

Usually one will often see this by pastry chefs wanting to control the amount of salt in their pastry, which is usually less than the percentage found in the butter.

Unless making very precise recipes, there is no need to use unsalted butter, and I have always used salted butter for everything. It is less expensive than unsalted butter, and butter is expensive enough already.

Send your food/cooking questions to dez@chefdez.com or P.O. Box 2674, Abbotsford, BC V2T 6R4. Chef Dez is a food columnist, culinary instructor and cookbook author. Visit him at www.chefdez.com.

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