Butter versus vegetable fat: The butter gets rid of its fat

Butter prices explode, margarine sales increase. This is not only good news for the climate and the animals.

A knife with spreadable fat on a slice of bread

According to the sales figures, butter is more popular – and there is a lot to be said for the plant-based alternative Photo: Jochen Tack/imago

Margarine doesn’t have a good reputation: it’s decried as a poor man’s spread, supposedly unhealthy and tastes inferior. But given the massive price increases for butter more and more people in Germany are turning to vegetable fat. Sales from January to November 2022 increased by 3.7 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the market research company GfK at the request of the taz. At the same time, 9.6 percent less butter and clarified butter was sold than a year ago.

“When butter prices are high, the cheaper variants are often used,” the company wrote to the taz. GfK evaluates the purchase receipts of thousands of consumers every month. So Germany eats less butter. Is that good or bad – and what does that mean for our health?

Time for a margarine portrait.

It protects the climate

The “good butter” is down-to-earth and natural. How can it be bad what great-grandmother smeared on her sandwich? What many do not know: The traditional fat spread is one of the most climate-damaging foods of all. In the conventional version, one kilogram of butter causes 9 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents, according to a study by the Heidelberg Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (ifeu). That is more than the production of drinking milk, cheese or pork. Full-fat margarine, on the other hand, only produces 2.8 kilograms of CO2-Equivalents.

It consists mainly of vegetable oils such as rapeseed, sunflower or coconut oil. The ifeu also took into account that, for example, forests could have been cleared for the ingredient palm oil, for example in Indonesia.

The poor carbon footprint of butter is mainly due to the fact that a whopping 25 liters of fresh milk are needed for one kilogram of the expensive fat. Dairy cows emit the particularly climate-damaging methane when they digest their feed. Absurdly, even more greenhouse gas is produced for organic butter, because in organic farming the yields per animal and hectare are usually lower and therefore more land has to be cultivated. And this despite the fact that organic farmers usually keep their cows on the pasture and not just in the barn.

It endangers rainforests

Margarine should spread easily. That is why almost all products contain palm, coconut and/or shea fats, which remain solid at room temperature. They all come from plantations in tropical countries. Forests are often destroyed for these plantations. This destroys habitats for plants and animals and releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. For palm oil, the seal of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is intended to prevent other areas worthy of protection from being cleared. However, the environmental organization Greenpeace criticizes that such certification systems have weaknesses. Coconut is also hardly certified.

Ilka Petersen, WWF land use consultant, nevertheless advises against butter due to the poor climate balance and recommends organic margarine as an alternative. The eco-label ensures that it can be determined where the raw materials come from. Incidentally, butter can also contribute to the destruction of rainforest or other valuable biotopes: Dairy cows are often fed with soy that is grown on cleared areas in tropical latitudes.

She protects animals

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Butter is not meat, but animals suffer and die for it too. In order for cows to produce milk, they must give birth to calves. About half of the calves are male, unsuitable as milk producers and are therefore slaughtered after a few months. The dairy cows themselves are slaughtered as soon as their productivity falls.

Margarine, on the other hand, usually does not contain any animal products. Although it is allowed under EU law that margarine may contain a small amount of animal fat, according to the state Federal Center for Nutrition Today, margarine “usually only consists of vegetable fats”.

It’s easy on the wallet

Those who opt for margarine save more than half. A kilogram of conventional margarine currently costs around 3.40 euros, and the same amount of butter costs just under 8 euros. While the average price of butter in November was 42 percent higher than a year earlier, the increase in margarine was just 35 percent, it said Federal Statistical Office.

She is better than her reputation

Margarine products have long been notorious for containing trans fats, which increase unfavorable blood cholesterol. That’s over, according to the Stiftung Warentest. “Our latest test margarine (tested 8/2017) confirms that trans fatty acids hardly play a role in margarine today.” This is mainly due to improved production methods.

Today, spreadable fat “compared to butter has a higher content of unsaturated fatty acids and thus a better fatty acid composition,” writes the German Society for Nutrition (DGE). Means, for example Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which, according to Stiftung Warentest, have a proven positive effect on high blood pressure, blood clotting and heart health. The DGE therefore recommends: “Preference for vegetable oils and fats.”

Creepy detail: all of the margarines tested contained the fat pollutants glycidyl esters, which are produced during production and can alter the human genome. However, in very small amounts, puts the foundation into perspective. This result is also worrying: the magazine Eco test found mineral oil components in margarine, presumably from production and packaging. However, also in almost all examined butter products.

Another piece of good news when it comes to fat: Both butter and full-fat margarine provide a lot of energy: at least 720 kilocalories per 100 grams. The DGE therefore advises eating no more than 15 to 30 grams of these spreadable fats every day.

she’s healthy

Organic margarine does not usually contain any chemically synthesized pesticides. But in the 2017 study by Stiftung Warentest, the best organic margarine was only “satisfactory” – among other things because of only “sufficient” nutritional quality.

Also in the Eco test-November 2021 issue “Organic” performed worse. The fat composition was less favorable than that of the conventional competition. This is because organic is increasingly using coconut or shea fat that is spreadable at room temperature. However, these fats are high in saturated fat. Especially long-chain saturated fats increase the unfavorable LDL cholesterol in the blood.

After all: Even the organic margarines were ahead of the butter in terms of fat quality. The five products tested contained “about 40 to 50 percent saturated fat. The composition is still cheaper than butter, which typically contains around 60 percent saturated fatty acids,” says Katja Tölle, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Eco test, the taz

She tastes

Especially when margarine doesn’t come in a plastic container but is wrapped in foil like butter, many consumers are unlikely to even notice the difference. In the most recent studies by Stiftung Warentest on butter and margarine, 47 percent of the tested items in both product classes received the grade “good” for “sensory” – i.e. for categories such as appearance, texture, smell, taste and mouthfeel. “Very good” was not awarded.

She bakes and roasts

“Fry with margarine,” advises Stiftung Warentest. It confirms that roasts are good to very good with all tested products. Only a few splashes of fat went next to the pan, for example when a meatball is sizzling in it. Fried potatoes and steaks can also be fried in margarine – as long as their fat content is high enough.

That means saying goodbye to half-fat margarines: these only have 39 to 41 percent fat. “Some fat experts even consider margarine to be the better frying fat compared to oil. Their water content of almost 20 percent transfers the heat to the food in a particularly gentle manner,” according to the foundation. Butter, on the other hand, is not suitable for frying at high temperatures, as components such as lactose and protein burn.

And as far as baking is concerned: According to the information on the packaging, almost all products tested by Stiftung Warentest are suitable for the oven. If you want to save calories, use low-fat versions.

She has history

Butter is mostly made from milk. Margarine, on the other hand, is an artificial mixture of fat and water that needs emulsifiers like lecithin to remain stable. Today, citric acid is often added as an acidifier and the coloring agent beta-carotene. Margarine as a spread has a long history: it was developed on the initiative of the French Emperor Napoleon III. invented and registered as a patent in 1869. At that time, the Emperor needed an inexpensive and long-lasting spread for his troops.

She remains second choice

Despite all this, there is still more butter than margarine over the counter. According to GfK, from January to November 2022, margarine sales were 153,864 tons and butter 181,694 tons. Against all reason.

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