Butter, Margarine, and Plant Butter: What's the Difference?

Many people confuse butter, margarine, and hydrogenated oils like shortening because they seem so similar. In reality, each has its positives, drawbacks, and specific uses, making them unique from each other. Learn all about these cooking fats, when it’s okay to substitute, and how you can use plant butter when cooking.

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Click below to discover more about the unique aspects of butter, margarine, and plant butter.

Margarine vs Butter

The main difference between butter and margarine is that butter is made from dairy and margarine is made of refined vegetable oil and water. Margarine is also considered to be slightly healthier than butter because it contains less cholesterol and has important nutrients like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

What Is Butter?

Butter is a dairy product made from churned cream. Butter has a rich, smooth mouthfeel and potent flavor, making it a great fat to use in cooking. In terms of popularity, butter is the most common fat used in cooking, and can be used to make anything from desserts like cakes to savory foods like soups.

What Is Butter Made of?

Butter is made by churning cream to pull apart the liquids from the solids, separating the butterfat from the buttercream. Cow’s milk is usually used to create butter products, especially in North America and Europe. However, there are other varieties of butter you can use such as goat butter and sheep butter.

Is Butter Unhealthy?

The healthiness of butter has long been a hot-button topic, especially with the ingredient’s prevalence in our diets. Butter is high in both calories and fat, meaning it can contribute to heart disease. Although butter may be delicious, its unhealthy properties mean it's probably best used in moderation.

What Is Margarine?

Coconut cake made with margarine

Margarine is a type of vegetable-based spread used during baking and cooking. It was initially created in France and has been used all over the world ever since.

While butter and margarine are nearly identical in consistency and use, margarine is slightly healthier based on calories, fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. It is also made up of additional healthy fatty acids and small traces of vitamins. When baking low-calorie recipes, try using light margarine or margarine butter with phytosterols, the plant version of cholesterol, because those two types have a lower calorie count.

Is Margarine Vegan?

Yes, many brands of margarine are vegan and vegetarian friendly. However, some brands include animal products like milk or whey. If you want to make sure the margarine is suitable for those with a dairy restriction, look for a certified vegan label on the package. This means the product is completely free of dairy products.

Is Margarine Healthy?

Margarine is made from vegetable oils, meaning it contains “good” unsaturated fats and no cholesterol. However, some margarine contains trans-fat which is even worse for your body than the saturated fats in butter. In terms of caloric density, margarine ranges from having slightly fewer calories than butter to containing the same. As a result, you’ll find that quality margarine may be slightly healthier than butter, but calling margarine a healthy food overall is a big stretch.

What Is Plant Butter?

Plant butter is a dairy-free and gluten-free butter made with plant-based oils from olives, avocados, and almonds. With an increase in alternative diets like vegetarianism, veganism, and gluten intolerance, plant butter is a healthy non-dairy substitute for normal butter.

Plant Butter vs Margarine

Plant butter and margarine seem very similar to each other, but the key difference is that margarine may still contain slight traces of dairy products. On the other hand, plant butter is completely free of any animal products. Outside of this one difference, there are no other key discernable features between the two.

Plant Butter vs Butter

The key difference between plant butter and regular butter is that plant-based butter is made by combining water with a plant-derived oil, while its counterpart is made from animal products. In terms of nutritional value, plant-based butter has some positives in that they contain less cholesterol than normal butter, but are just as dense calorically. Plant butter also contains more coloring and artificial flavoring than dairy butter.

Is Plant Butter Healthy?

Many people assume that since plant-based butter is vegan they are healthy, but that isn’t always the case. Plant-based butter still contains a large number of saturated fats which are bad for your body. As a result, plant-based butter isn’t considered a healthy food and is only marginally healthier than typical dairy butter.

Cooking and Baking with Butter, Margarine, and Plant Butter

Butter and banana bread on a table

Even though butter, margarine, and plant butter all have slightly different ingredients, you can still cook and bake with all three equally. The taste will not differ too much, but the texture of the food may change a little. Use plant butter or margarine to cook eggs, vegetables, or your famous cookies, just like you would use butter.

When baking with butter, much like when baking with lard, your food will have a nice golden color because the butter allows the food to brown when cooked. Margarine and plant butter, on the other hand, don’t provide as nice of a golden color, but they still give food and baked goods the same buttery crunch.

With all of this newfound knowledge of butter, margarine, and now plant butter, you can confidently cook and bake delicious food based on your preferences. Try a beloved recipe and substitute plant butter for regular butter or butter for margarine to see if there’s a difference. You might find a new favorite butter alternative!

Posted in: Bakeries|Kitchen & Cooking Tips|By Kevin Singhel
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