Cholesterol in Butter vs Margarine – Which One Is Healthier?

Cholesterol in Butter

Ah, Butter. Whether real or fake, it just does not seem like toast or rolls can live without it. It is used in baking, used in cooking and used on, well, just about everything! The amount of fat and cholesterol in butter combined with its complete lack of solid nutrition make it little more than a health hazard to most. However, butter has become much more confusing as of late, with some manufactured margarines going so far as to claim that they are good for you! Is there any truth to that? Well, let’s explore butter and margarine and find out if either is a suitable part of a cholesterol diet.

Looking first at real butter, as in, the kind that is made from animal products like cow’s milk, it is easy to see why it is one food that is worth avoiding for people with high cholesterol. The U.S.D.A. explains that thirty one milligrams of cholesterol can be found in each tablespoon of unsalted butter, which in itself makes the cholesterol in milk look positively presentable in comparison. However, unlike whole milk which is of course also thought to be a no-no on a low fat low cholesterol diet, the cholesterol in butter is not the only problem that the cooking fat has going for it. Milk contains nutrients like calcium that the body needs to stay healthy. While in very minimal amounts some nutrients can be found in butter, it is essentially devoid of anything that can benefit the body.

However, there is one area that butter really excels and that is in the fat department. While we can discuss the cholesterol in butter all day, the amounts of fats it contains are not only problematic for the waistline; they can lead to a jump in cholesterol levels too. In fact, the Harvard School of Public Health discusses saturated fats and points out that the amount of cholesterol found in food is perhaps less important than the amount of bad fats, like saturated fats, that are ingested. While not all fat is bad fat, saturated fats have been attributed to increases in cholesterol – and real butter is chock full of the stuff, containing over seven grams in each tablespoon, according to the U.S.D.A.

These unhealthy fats found in butter can also contribute to high triglycerides. Joy Bauer explains that not only are triglycerides really nothing more than a fancy term for “fat,” they are increased by eating more of the bad types of fats (like those found in butter). When high triglycerides present, they can lead to changes in the consistency of the blood, and make it more susceptible to clotting and blockages. With this fat related fact combined with the already high amounts of cholesterol in butter, it seems that the arteries and the biscuit topper just simply don’t get along.

So, for people who have high cholesterol, real butter is not a good option and should not be included in any diet geared towards lowering cholesterol numbers. But, what about non hydrogenated margarines that are lower in bad fats and even those that are touted to lower cholesterol? Are those any better? The answer would be “Yes” and “No” at the same time.

Again, we have to look at the risks versus the rewards when it comes to margarine choices that claim that they not only lack the terrible levels of cholesterol in butter, but can also help it. These products contain compounds known as plant sterols and plant stanols. They occur naturally and have been approved as a food additive by the FDA to promote heart health. They actually do lower cholesterol levels, and this has been proven in studies time and time again. The problem is that in heart healthy margarine products, these compounds may in fact be beneficial, but they are being added to such a lowly and terrible nutritional choice that their benefits are well overshadowed by this fact. Aside from the plant based compounds, margarine options (even heart healthy ones) provide little further nutritional benefits, more calories, and still present fats (although in reduced and better quantities). explains that when choosing, it’s important to pick margarine that are free from trans-fats and have the lowest amount of saturated fat possible. However, it is important to understand that the lipid lowering compounds found in purportedly heart healthy margarines can be found in all sorts of natural foods, other fortified products like orange juice, as well as supplements to lower cholesterol, and fat filled margarine is certainly not the only means to obtain them.

So what can people looking for low cholesterol recipes use if both the amount of fat and cholesterol in butter and the lack of nutrition and questionable fat content of margarine make sauteing impossible? Well, it’s important to use other sources of fat where possible for low cholesterol recipes. Choosing oils that are chock full of good fats, like olive or coconut oils, will not only add an abundance of flavor to recipes, but also heaping helpings of monounsaturated fats, which are the kind the body likes. In terms of baking, look for replacement options that don’t compromise flavor or texture, like using low sugar applesauce instead of butter if possible. If butter is an absolute necessity, then make sure that you are using the absolute best alternative margarine choice available that contains the least amount of saturated fat and no trans fat, and use it as sparingly as possible. Neither margarine nor butter is a good choice for people with high cholesterol. However, newer options can be useful in a pinch when needed for a recipe or other meal preparation.