How Food is Made

What is Difference Between Butter and Margarine?

What is Difference Between Butter and Margarine?

What is difference between butter and margarine? Almost anyone reading this will be so well acquainted with margarine and butter that they require no formal introduction. We smear this fat-laden stuff on our toast every morning, bake with it, fry food in it, and probably feel like our waistline could do with much less of it. The mere mention of margarine and butter has the power to stir up guilt and anxiety, as we become aware of the many margarine vs butter arguments around us. We are simultaneously told that margarine is healthier than butter, and then, that butter is healthier than margarine. Confused? You’re not the only one.

We eat them every day, but can you honestly say that you know what is difference between butter and margarine?

In this article I’ll share with you:

  • Introduction to Margarine and Butter
  • Margarine vs Butter ingredients
  • Margarine vs Butter processing (infographic)
  • Which is healthier Margarine or Butter?
  • History of Margarine and Butter

Despite the fact that margarine and butter appear frequently in our diet and there is such heated argument over margarine vs butter, it is quite surprising that few of us actually understand how margarine and butter are processed. While writing my non-fiction food comic book How Food is Made: An illustrated guide to how everyday food is produced (more about the book here) I researched a ton of food science and food industry books, magazines and journals to get the real answer to your question ‘What is difference between butter and margarine?’, which I give to you now. The following text and infographic is an extract from my book How Food is Made.

A quick note before we get started. There are many articles on the internet about Margarine vs Butter, so you might wonder how this one is any different. The difference is my intent—I am not trying to sway your opinion; I do not work in food advertising or the health industry. I am an author and artist, and my intention in researching, writing and illustrating this topic is to simply bring unbiased food knowledge to people. I personally don’t care if you eat butter or margarine, instead what I care about is that you are given the freedom and facts to make your own decision.

Strap yourself in, as we dive deep into the Margarine vs Butter argument.

Introduction to Margarine and Butter

What is difference between butter and margarine?

Butter is a dairy product made from cream or unhomogenised milk. Butter is comprised of butter fat (65–80%) and water (15–30%) and may be salted or unsalted. Butter is used in both solid and liquid states for a variety of cooking purposes. As a solid, butter is spread on bread and used in baking and, in liquid form, it is used for frying and sauces. There are many variations including cultured butter (made from fermented cream), compound butters (eg garlic butter, brandy butter), clarified butter (eg ghee) and whipped butter.

Margarine is a spread made from vegetable oil, water and milk, which is used in a similar way to butter. Although it was originally made as a cheap butter replacement, today margarine is perceived to be a healthier alternative to butter. Low-fat margarine contains as low as 40% fat, while regular is around 80% fat. Margarine is often fortified with Vitamins E, A and D.

Non-dairy variations are available in margarine, whereas butter is always made from dairy milk making it unsuitable for people on a dairy-free or vegan diet. Not all margarine is dairy-free, however, as many contain added milk.

What is spreadable butter?

Spreadable butter is a popular alternative to both butter and margarine. These spreads resemble both margarine and butter in many ways, with the advantage being that they have a spreadable consistency straight from the fridge (unlike butter), and are more appetising than margarine. Spreadable butter is made by combining butter with vegetable oil or other additives that alter the chemical make-up of the butter. You can make a simple spreadable butter yourself at home by blending butter with oil (such as extra-virgin olive oil).

Margarine vs Butter ingredients

When pondering the question ‘which is healthier margarine or butter?’ it is a good idea to take a look at the ingredients since these are of course what you are ultimately consuming. Below is a list of the most common ingredients found in margarine vs butter, and processing aids. This table should help you form a pretty clear picture of what the difference between margarine and butter is, based on ingredients alone.

What the difference between margarine and butter is, by ingredient

Margarine – Ingredients
Vegetable Oil (from soybean, corn, canola, olive etc)
Butter – Ingredients

Margarine – Processing Aids*
Butter – Processing Aids*

Vegetable Oil – Processing Aids^
Solvent (eg hexane)
Caustic Soda (sodium hydroxide)
Acid (eg citric, phosphoric)
Bleach (eg clay, carbon)    
Table: What is difference between butter and margarine by ingredient

*Processing aids are additives used during the production process to achieve a certain chemical reaction or other outcome necessary to the making of that food, but are not present in the final food product in significant quantities.

^Processing aids used in the production of refined vegetable oil have been shown, since vegetable oil is the key ingredient in margarine. Most margarine is made from refined vegetable oil, although there may be exceptions.

This table can be quite confronting to some people, so I want to reiterate that I am just presenting the bare facts and have not manipulated any information to try and influence your decision as to which is healthier margarine or butter. However, you must admit when looking at the table it is pretty clear that margarine is a significantly more complex food than butter, requiring the use of some pretty heavy-duty industrial processing aids (eg Palladium) that would not ordinarily make any appearance in home food preparation. By comparison butter requires no special processing aids, and has only one essential ingredient: milk (salt is optional).

Margarine vs Butter Processing

What is difference between butter and margarine processing?

Now that we’ve looked at the ingredients, the next step is to look at the processing methods of Margarine vs Butter.

Margarine is made from vegetable oil. First, vegetable oil is made from oilseed (eg olive, corn, sunflower, canola) using an industrial process described in the infographic below. To make margarine, the liquid vegetable oil is converted to a solid. This is achieved through one of several chemical processes. Hydrogenation is the process shown here, whereby the melting point of oil is raised, causing it to solidify at room temperature.

To make butter, cream or milk is churned or shaken, causing globules of butter fat to join into one solid mass that we call ‘butter’. It is basic enough that you can make it at home, by beating cream in an electric mixer until it forms butter. The full name for butter produced by this method is ‘sweet cream butter’, and it is the most common butter consumed in the US, UK and Australia. Less common butters such as clarified, cultured and whipped butter use different production methods.

what is difference between butter and margarine chart
Click here to view high-resolution version of this ‘What is difference between butter and margarine?’ chart

If you are interested in learning more about refined vegetable oil processing (for margarine), check out my article How Refined Vegetable Oils are Made.

Which is healthier Margarine or Butter?

Let’s be upfront. No one really knows whether butter or margarine is healthier, as there is no consensus among medical experts.

Butter is higher in saturated fats, while margarines often contain high levels of artificial trans fats, which studies have shown may be more harmful than saturated fats. The process of hydrogenation used in margarine production is known to create artificial trans fats.

One reason why it is difficult to say which is healthier margarine or butter, is because margarine varies widely depending on the oil and manufacturing process used. Also, standards for what constitutes margarine vary between countries. Margarine quality tends to vary by brand much more than butter does. This also makes it difficult to pinpoint with precision what is difference between butter and margarine, since margarines can differ so much from each other.

If you are thinking about eating margarine, the best thing you can do is read the label and try to choose a higher quality brand, although it may cost a little more. Cheap brands are much more likely to use cheap, nasty processing methods that cut corners in production so they can also cut costs, often resulting in a more harmful food product. This isn’t always the case, but it was certainly a recurring pattern I noticed in all processed foods during my research for my book ‘How Food is Made’.

History of Margarine and Butter

The word butter originates from the Latin word ‘butyrum’, which translates to ‘cow cheese’. There is evidence, however, that butter was produced from goats and sheep, before cattle were domesticated. Butter has also been made from camel’s and yak’s milk for thousands of years.

In the 1100s, the Scandinavians were the first Europeans to produce butter for trade. It is thought the reason for this was due to the cooler Scandinavian climate, which was more suited to butter making, since butter goes rancid quicker in warm environments. Across Europe, butter was originally considered a peasant food but, from the 1500s, it gained more favour with the middle and upper classes. During times of oil shortages, butter was also used as lamp fuel.

Butter’s popularity in France grew so much that, by the late 1800s, production was unable to keep up with demand. In response to this problem, margarine was developed as a cheap substitute for butter. Margarine was invented in late 1800s France, following a challenge from Napoléon III for someone to create a cheap and credible substitute for butter. It was called oleomargarine in reference to margaric acid, and was later shortened to margarine.

The first margarine factories were established in Europe in the late-1800s. It was not long before the butter and margarine industries fell in competition with one another, as they still are today.

Originally, margarine was made from a combination of beef tallow and milk. Subsequent margarines were made from tallow or lard blended with cottonseed oil. In the mid-1950s, shortages in animal fat led to a change of recipe, resulting in margarines based on vegetable oil. During World War II, margarine became very popular due to butter shortages.

Spreads made from a blend of butter fat and vegetable oil first appeared in Europe in the late 1960s.

What’s the deal with yellow and white stripy margarine?

Ever seen vintage ads where margarine had yellow and white stripes? No, it wasn’t just an artistic representation of margarine, it actually looked that way sometimes. But why?

Early versions of margarine were white, so producers dyed it yellow to make it more appetising and more like butter. In the USA, however, the government quickly moved to ban dyes in margarine. Rather than sell white margarine, producers included a sachet of yellow dye in each margarine pack, which customers were instructed to mix in themselves. Mixing the dye into the margarine was time-consuming, so instead of a uniform yellow margarine, many homes quite amusingly ended up with white and yellow stripy margarine due to poor mixing. In 1955 the ban on dye in margarine was lifted, and producers started adding yellow dye to their margarine once again.

Ancient butter facts
  • An ancient method of making butter was to half-fill a goat’s skin with milk, then inflate it with air. The skin was sealed, dangled from a height, then rocked back and forth to churn the milk until butter formed. This method is still used in some less developed nations.
  • Butter has been used in India for a long time, with mentions of butter appearing in the Hindu religious text ‘Rigveda’.
  • A type of ancient, strong-flavoured style of butter called ‘bog butter’ was made by loading butter into barrels, which were then submerged in peat bogs for months or years—this was common in 11–14th century Ireland.

Did you enjoy this article ‘What is Difference Between Butter and Margarine’?

If you’d like to learn more about the processed foods we eat everyday, please check out my non-fiction food comic book How Food is Made: An illustrated guide to how everyday food is produced. The book features 60 common foods, detailing their history and manufacturing process using illustrations and food infographics.

If you have ever wondered where factory food really comes from and how it is made, this book is for you. Don’t just take my word for it. Food critics and reviewers love the book too – check out critic reviews here. Find out more about the book here and read more free samples here.

Thanks for reading!

-Ayla Marika

‘What is difference between butter and margarine?’ article credits: Featured Image Photo by Felicity Tai from Pexels

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