Is margarine a sustainable alternative for butter?

Butter has a much higher carbon footprint than margarine. But what if margarine is made from palm oil. And what about the health impacts of margarine?

butter

Share this post

Mareike Brühl | 01-29-2024

One of my cherished family moments on Sunday: eating croissants with butter. When I found out that margarine has a much lower climate impact, I switched. Especially because I found tasty alternatives that tasted very similar. But I soon found out many people were worried about my health: isn’t butter the better choice?

Eating less dairy is one of the most important steps to take if you want to eat for the climate, after eating less meat. Have a look at our compass to see how it compares to other food actions. Among dairy products cheese is the most important one to focus on – if you only look at climate impact per kg – but can also be quite hard. That’s why I’ve shared my own journey as a cheese lover here.

In the Fork Ranger book you’ll join Frank in his personal search of the most impactful steps in eating for the climate.

But after cheese, most milk is used for the production of butter. That’s because there’s only a small amount of fat in milk, whereas butter contains 80% fat. After pasteurization and homogenization the cream is separated from the rest of the milk by centrifuging it. It’s like a giant washing machine where the cream is eventually left over. The cream is then churned – which means shaking it up. The membranes surrounding the milk fat are broken and this allows them to clump together. These fat clumps are seperated from the remaining milk in the cream – called buttermilk. After the fat has been cooled down, it can be mixed with salt (or other flavours) and packaged and is called butter. If you’re interested in how it looks like, watch this video.

Margarine is the best climate alternative

Instead of using milk to produce a nice fatty spread for our sandwich, the food industry has also created margarines. While the plant oils for margarines are fluid by room temperature, they are treated so that they mimic our beloved butter.

As with most food products, plant-based products have a much lower climate impact than animal products. This is the same for butter and margarine. The CO2 emissions of butter are roughly 4 times as high as the impact of margarine. Margarine also uses less water, less land and leads to less water pollution.

Seems like a no brainer to switch to margarines, right? But there are two main concerns that are raised in conversations around the dilemma ‘butter or margarine’. Let’s have a look at these concerns and whether they’re valid.

Concern 1: what about palm oil?

One of the plant-based oils that’s often used in margarine is palm oil. The Flower Farm, a manufacturer of palm-oil free margarines, claims that palm oil makes up 25% of the fat in margarines. We’ve tried to find out based on the packaging but food manufacturers don’t have to disclose the exact amounts of each ingredient. So this is the best figure we have.

And as most of the palm oil comes from areas of tropical rainforest, there is a big threat of deforestation. However, replacing palm oil with other plant-based oils is not an easy fix because they require more land. Read more in the whole blog post about palm oil. For the ingredient mostly used by The Flower Farm – shea butter – there is no data yet available on required land. They currently grow in the wild, but the question is how much of this product is available for large scale production.

The climate impact of deforestation is included in the study comparing butter and margarine above. So while we definitely want to avoid deforestation, the climate impact of choosing a margarine instead of butter is still lower. Even if we include the risk of deforestation.

While we have to accept that many margarines contain some palm oil, many other (processed) products we buy also contain palm oil. So rather than freaking out about the palm oil in margarine, we can better reduce the amount of other processed products we purchase. That’s definitely also a good idea for our health!

Concern 2: what about our health?

The health concerns about margarine come from the time that margarines still contained a substantial amount of trans fats. But this isn’t the case nowadays. In Europe foods are not allowed to contain more than 2 g of trans fats per 100 g of fats, unless they occur naturally. These limits were implemented in 2021, so quite recently. That’s why this point still comes up often and many people believe that butter is still significantly better.

Let’s dive into this topic for a bit so you know where the concern comes from. Trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are formed when plant-based oils are treated with hydrogen to make them solid at room temperature. The World Health Organization states that high trans fat intake increases the risk of death from any cause by 34%, coronary heart disease deaths by 28%, and coronary heart disease by 21%. This is likely due to the following effect: trans fat increases LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels while lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. So, it’s no wonder people were so alarmed about trans fats, and therefore also margarines, back in the days.

Animal products on the other hand, contain some trans fats that occur naturally. Milk, butter, cheese, or beef, all contained 2-9% of trans fat of the total amount of fat. Three studies were listed where butter contained 2.1, 3.1 and 4.7% of trans fat. As both margarines and butter contain some trans fats and the origin of trans fats (natural or industrial) does not seem to affect the effects in your body, one is not necessarily worse than the other.

So, looking at trans fats, there is not a clear winner between margarine and butter. But besides trans fats, butter and margarine contain a different composition of saturated and non-saturated fats. And this is important to consider for your health. While it’s acceptable to consume some saturated fats, a high amount of them increases LDL (”bad”) cholesterol and therefore increases heart diseases. And as butter contains more saturated fats than margarine, margarine is the safer choice. So not only is margarine more sustainable, it’s also healthier!

Back to my beloved croissant, it’s still fine to enjoy some butter every now and then. But for all the other moments, it might be worth using margarine (or liquid vegetable oils) instead.

Conclusion

Butter has about a 4 times bigger climate impact than margarine when we look at CO2 emissions.

Looking at the bigger picture of reducing our dairy intake, switching from butter to margarine can actually be one of the easier things to do. A lot easier than reducing the amount of cheese if you ask me. This is mostly because it’s easier to mimic the properties of butter than those of cheese!

In the Fork Ranger book you’ll find recipes with small amounts of dairy. And for example the Fenchel Risotto tastes great with margarine instead of butter.

Sometimes margarine contains palm oil but even if you use numbers that come from palm oil that caused deforestation the impact is lower than butter. In other words: while margarine might not always be deforestation-free, the land use of butter is much more damaging.

Talking about health, margarine is not (anymore) a more unhealthy choice than butter. Due to new laws regarding trans fats in margarines, they have been removed or kept at a minimum. Trans fats are at a similar level which can be found in butter. And margarine even contains less saturated fats.

So in short, margarine is a great sustainable and healthier alternative for butter.