Butter and margarine taste a lot alike, and are very similar nutritionally. The main difference between butter and margarine is the type of fat that's found in these two products. However, because so many versions of regular butter and margarine are available commercially, it's often difficult to determine which is the best option.
The calorie content of regular butter and margarine is the same, however, choosing light butter or light margarine can cut your calories in half. Butter and margarine both contain about 100 calories in each tablespoon. In comparison, Cleveland Clinic notes that light butter provides 50 calories, yogurt butter -- which contains plant-based oils and yogurt -- provides 45 calories, and light margarine provides just 40 to 45 calories per tablespoon. All of the calories in butter and margarine are from fat, so both of these spreads contain no carbohydrates or protein.
The type of fat found in butter and margarine is what makes these two products different from each other. Margarine contains plant-based fats, and butter is made from dairy fat. Many margarines used to contain trans fat, which is a hydrogenated fat that significantly boosts your risk for heart disease. However, many margarine manufacturers have significantly reduced or eliminated trans fat from their ingredient list to make products more heart-healthy. Some margarines contain plant-based saturated fats like palm oil and palm kernel oil instead. Palm kernel oil, palm oil, and butter all contain medium chain triglycerides, which are saturated fats that may aid in healthy weight management, according to Cleveland Clinic. However, MedlinePlus notes that too much saturated fat can increase blood cholesterol and heart disease risks.
Which is Healthier?
Yogurt butters and soft tub butters and margarines containing liquid vegetable oil, such as olive oil, as the first or second ingredient are healthier for you than hard stick butters and margarines. If you have high cholesterol, ask your doctor about choosing margarine fortified with plant sterols or stanols. Harvard Health Publications notes that trans fat is the worst of all fats, so avoid products containing trans fat. If you're trying to cut calories to shed pounds, choose lower-calorie light butter, light margarine, or yogurt butter.
An experienced health, nutrition and fitness writer, Erin Coleman is a registered and licensed dietitian and holds a dietetics degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also has worked as a clinical dietitian and health educator in outpatient settings. Erin's work is published on popular health websites, such as TheNest.com and JillianMichaels.com.