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Butter is not a mysterious food; just agitate some milk or cream and separate out the solids. Margarine, however—what the heck is in margarine, and is it better for you than rich, creamy, luscious, fatty butter? A little history: Margarine was invented by accident in 1813 by French scientist Michel Eugene Chevreul, who came upon a fatty acid he dubbed “acide margarique”—playing off the French word for “pearly.” 56 years later, Emperor Napoleon III (not the hand-in-shirt, war-waging Napoleon) offered a prize to the person who could create a decent (this is French food after all) butter substitute in the midst of a national dairy shortage. French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès took home top honors with his “oleomargarine,” which was a churned blend of beef tallow and milk. It didn’t quite catch on (again: France—their food has a rep for a reason), but few years later, Mège-Mouriès brought the formula to a Dutch company that wisely pointed out that butter is yellow, so color should be added.
The margarine of today contains no beef tallow, and generally no dairy, either (though a very few brands may contain milk). Margarine is made of vegetable oils (like canola, olive, soybean and safflower), water, salt, emulsifiers, butter flavoring, and that yellow, buttery coloring. It’s highly processed so that oils remain solid at room temperature. Margarine in stick form is generally hydrogenated to keep its shape and extend its shelf life, and that’s what turns some of the oils into trans fats. Trans-fat free margarine (which often contains palm or palm kernel oil) does exist, but if you were looking in that direction for diet reasons (and not matters of veganism), you may consider going for butter, which packs the same amount of fat and calories as most of the major brands of trans-fat free margarine. Manufacturers can label their product as trans-fat free so long as there is less than half a gram of trans fat per serving.
You’re not gonna be making margarine at home—or spreads for that matter. Margarine, by law, must have a minimum fat content of 80 percent, and anything below that is considered a spread. Those vary wildly in in fat content—they may be as low as 10 percent or as high as 90 percent—largely determined by how much water is in the mix. While margarine can often be used in recipes that call for butter (don’t even try it with spreads—you might be trying to save someone’s heart by using them, but you’ll pretty much be breaking it), there may be notable flavor and texture differences.
So is butter better, or is margarine in charge at your breakfast? Only you can decide. (Kidding: #teambutter always and forever.)