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Many types of margarine have different uses

Susan Mills-Gray, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension


Many people wonder when to use margarine instead of butter. Both butter and margarine are loaded with calories and saturated fat or trans fat, which is connected to increasing risk of chronic disease, and both should be used sparingly.


There are many different types of margarine on the market, so it can be confusing to know which to purchase for spreading, cooking or baking. Whether in stick or tub form, to be a true margarine, it must contain at least 80 percent oil (the rest is mostly milk and water). If the product contains less than 80 percent oil, then it must be labeled as a “vegetable oil spread.” The fat content of margarines and spreads vary widely. Look for the percent oil on the package — it’s usually in small print!


Types of margarine:


  • Traditional stick margarine: It’s the least healthy of all margarines because it’s highest in trans fat. The more solid a margarine, the more trans fats it contains from partially hydrogenated oils. Best uses? The same as butter — spreading, melting, baking and sautéing.
  • Regular tub margarines/spreads: Most contain 61 to 79 percent vegetable oil and many are now labeled as trans-fat-free, though they may still contain some partially hydrogenated oil. Gimmicky ingredients like sweet cream buttermilk, yogurt and olive oil aren’t typically present in large enough quantities to be of much help, except for some flavor. Several tub margarines now have added calcium — at 100 milligrams per tablespoon, which is 10 percent of the Daily Value recommendation — might be a helpful calcium boost. Best uses? Spreading, melting, sautéing. Avoid use in baking, as it reduces volume of baked product, so cakes and cookies rise less and have a tougher crumb.
  • Light, low-Fat and fat-free spreads: These range from 0 percent (fat-free/nonfat) to 40 percent vegetable oil (light/lower fat) and are your most healthy choices. Each of these products contains a large quantity of water, which greatly affects potential use. Best uses? Spreading, though the water content can cause sogginess if given time. Do not use for baking, it results in poor quality products (e.g., individual cookies become a bar cookie, cakes will be dense and have compressed crumb).
  • Plant stanol and sterol ester spreads: These spreads include plant sterols and stanols that are proven to lower blood cholesterol — if you use 2 to 3 tablespoons daily, which can quickly add calories to your diet. Brand name examples are: Benecol, Promise or Smart Balance. Best uses? Spreading. Don’t use for baking for same reason as light spreads.
  • Spray/pump products: These are extremely low in saturated and trans fats, hence their liquid nature. Best uses? Topping and sautéing.


Three tips for choosing the healthiest margarine/spread:


  1. Check the Nutrition Facts label to be sure trans fat is 0 and saturated fat is no more than 1.5 grams per tablespoon.
  2. Be sure oil or water is first in the list of ingredients, but keep in mind that the healthier margarine choices aren’t generally the best choice to use for baking.
  3. Scan the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oils — avoid brands with them.


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Last update: Monday, April 23, 2012