For centuries, butter reigned supreme in kitchens all over the world. It was used for cooking, baking, spreading, and even as a regular condiment. Then, in the midst of a vehement health craze, butter suddenly became public enemy number one and Margarine was introduced.
Not surprisingly, margarine was (in the last decade) unveiled to be a trans-fat laden imposter that was arguably less healthy than the very product it was meant to replace. New products that refused to define themselves came on the market consisting of various oil spreads and marketing tricks. “I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter” told you what it wasn’t, but not what it was. When deciding what to purchase for your family, you should ideally first understand what each option really is and what it can offer you.
Butter has been used for thousands of years, though not always in the form we are currently familiar with. Thousands of years before cattle were domesticated, most butter came from sheep and goats’ milk. Butter is created by churning fermented or fresh milk or cream. It primarily consists of water, butterfat, and milk proteins.
It is a solid when refrigerated, and at room temperature it gains a spreadable consistency. There are varieties of butter, with Sweet Cream Butter generally preferred in the United States and Cultured Butter more common in Europe. Raw Cream butter, which is unpasteurized and has a very short shelf life, is rarely found in modern times.
One tablespoon of butter (14 grams) contains 11 grams of fat, 7 of which are saturated. Additionally, this same tablespoon contains approximately 30mg of cholesterol. This makes butter one of the most calorie dense foods in the world. Modern nutritional science cites butter consumption as a significant contributor to various conditions such as heart disease.
“Margarine” is actually a blanket term for a variety of butter substitutes. As such, there isn’t per se a standard definition and nutritional consistency with every product. Many countries attempted to protect their dairy industries by forbidding the coloring of margarine (sometimes holding such bans for as much as a century).
Margarine was invented in the early 1800’s as a cheap and longer-lasting substitute for butter. It was, however, often taxed heavily until dairy shortages led to its widespread consumption. Its fat content was similar to that of butter (a minimum of 80% by law) but the fat composition differed over the years.
Vegetable Oil spreads, still technically called Margarine, became popular in the late 1900’s. Often times, margarine that was intended to be healthy used canola or sunflower oils which are low in saturated fats. To gain a solid consistency, however, these products often integrated partially-hydrogenated components that were high in Trans-fats. These fats, it was discovered, were actually significantly more dangerous than saturated fats.
After this discovery was made (along with a good amount of consumer outrage), food manufacturers adjusted by creating trans-fat free spreads such as Smart Balance that were additionally fortified with Vitamins A and D as well as Omega-3 fatty acids. These spreads are considered excellent alternatives to butter.