Margarine vs. butter: What’s the difference?

Margarine and butter — you often use them interchangeably; for spreading on toast, pan-frying eggs, cooking pancakes, baking etc. But do you actually know the difference between the two? If you love cooking or work in the food industry you might be familiar with the differences. But for the everyday consumer, it might not be so easy to tell the two apart. This is especially true for Indonesians like me, because we more commonly use cooking oil than margarine or butter.

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The most obvious difference is that margarine is vegetable-based, and is often used by vegans, vegetarians, people who are lactose-intolerant, and those looking to move towards plant-based diets. Let’s explore some other differences between margarine and butter in the table below.

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As someone who loves to cook, I cannot deny that for certain dishes, the use of butter results in the food being richer than using margarine. To me, butter is perfect for sweet food like soft and chewy cakes, cookies, breads and pastries, because I want the result to be creamier and richer. While for savoury dishes like fried egg, fried rice, or pan-fried sausage, my best mate is margarine. However, because butter contains more than three times the amount of saturated fat than margarine, we must be careful to moderate our intake so as not to raise our bad cholesterol levels.

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Consumption patterns
European countries tend to consume more butter. This is heavily influenced by their cuisine. For example, France’s butter-heavy style of cooking every day with their croissants, chicken cordon bleu, and quiches make them the world’s most voracious butter consumer. They also hold the distinction of making some of the world’s best butter.

Compared to butter, margarine is cheaper and hence used more in industrial food production. Margarine is selected for food production because it delivers quality food at a lower cost. It also comes with other benefits such as being able to cater to vegetarians and its production is better for the environment, which means using it is a win-win for many food producers.

Margarine’s popularity in 1) industrial production and 2) developing countries as an alternative to butter explains why the United States has the highest margarine consumption rates — due to its heavy reliance on convenience foods. Pakistan and India follow with the next highest rates, with factors such as price and a large population with vegetarian diets (due to religion) playing a part.

It is worth sharing that the market demand for margarine in China is increasing. It grew from 1.06 million tonnes in 2016, to 1.5 million tonnes in 2017. The uptick of margarine consumption can be partially attributed to the increased ‘convenience food lifestyle’ adoption in larger cities.

Different countries have different popular ingredients used to make margarines. This often depends on what crops are grown in that particular region. In countries like India, Indonesia and Malaysia, margarines made from palm oil are the most popular. In Europe, it could be olive, sunflower or rapeseed oil, and in the US, soybean oil.

GAR produces palm oil-based margarine for both industrial food production — supplying to bakeries and other food manufacturers — and for everyday home cooking. Our Filma and Palmboom margarine products have served Indonesian families’ needs for decades, helping prepare delicious, nutritious and high quality food that everyone can enjoy, all sourced responsibly. Learn more about our range of palm oil products here.

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These days, health benefits associated with margarine also play a part in driving product demand among health-conscious consumers. We get into that in our next blog in the series, coming soon.

So the next time you’re at the supermarket choosing between whether to buy a tub of margarine or a block of butter, we hope this helps you make an informed choice as to which suits your needs better! Find more information about palm oil, nutrition and food here.

We are a leading seed-to-shelf agribusiness, producing food and fuel for the present and future.

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