Butter has gotten a bad rap as a fat-laden, artery-clogging mess that will surely condemn you to a future of heart disease, so many people have switched to margarine. The truth is, margarine may not be any healthier for you, and it lacks certain characteristics that count in butter's favor. Not that butter will ever be considered a health food, but it may be the lesser of two evils.
No Trans Fats
Butter originally made the junk food list by being high in saturated fat, which can raise your risk of heart disease. Margarine is free of saturated fat, but some varieties may have trans fats, which works on your body the same way that saturated fats do. In addition to contributing to high blood pressure, it can lower your "good" cholesterol levels and raise your "bad" cholesterol levels. Trans fats are a manufactured agent that doesn't occur in natural foods, so it doesn't show up in butter. If you consume any trans fats, they should not be more than 1 percent of your daily calories. If you have a 2,000 calorie a day diet, you should eat no more than 2 grams of trans fats per day, according to the American Heart Association. Saturated fat should be no more than 7 percent of your daily calories.
As a dairy product, churned from the cream that rises to the top of milk, butter contains the usual vitamins found in milk -- A, D, E and K. These vitamins are fat soluble, meaning that the fat in the butter helps your body absorb them. A normal pat-size serving of butter doesn't contain enough vitamins to contribute much to your recommended daily allowance, but margarine is generally devoid of vitamins unless they are specially added during production.
Margarine is manufactured, not "prepared." It begins with a chemical extraction process that squeezes the fat out of certain vegetables, and is then refined. The refining is done at temperatures which alter the structure of the oil, which loses its vitamin E. Hydrogen is added to make it a solid substance, which creates the trans fats. Frequently, artificial coloring and flavoring is added to make the product more appealing. In contrast, butter is simply churned cream -- perhaps with some salt added -- and gets its color from leftover milk solids, its flavor from the milk fat and its consistency from the churning process.
If you prefer natural foods to artificial ones, you can still have butter without eating yourself into an early grave. Use it sparingly, and choose whipped varieties that give you less butter per spread by incorporating air. Or try a variety of butter that has been mixed with canola or olive oil -- they taste just like butter, but they have a lower saturated fat and calorie content.