Is margarine less calories than butter?

Margarine and butter are both commonly used spreads that have similarities and differences when it comes to their nutrition facts and calories. Many people wonder if choosing margarine over butter can help reduce calorie intake. In this comprehensive article, we will analyze the calories and other nutrition information in margarine and butter to determine if margarine does indeed have fewer calories.

The Origins and Manufacturing of Margarine

Margarine was invented in 1869 by Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès in response to a request from Emperor Napoleon III for a butter substitute that would be more affordable for the armed forces and lower classes. Mège-Mouriès created margarine by adding beef fat to skim milk.

Today, margarine is made from vegetable oils, such as soybean, corn, canola, or olive oil. To make margarine, the oils are hydrogenated, a process that adds hydrogen to the oils to turn liquid vegetable oils into a solid fat. Extra ingredients are added for color and flavor. In the United States, margarine must have at least 80% fat.

The creation and production methods of margarine have evolved considerably since its invention in the 1860s. Now, many margarines are made from healthier oils and have reduced amounts of trans fats due to modern manufacturing techniques. However, some margarines may still contain partially hydrogenated oils, additives, and other ingredients depending on the brand.

The Origins and Manufacturing of Butter

Butter is a dairy product made from the fat and protein components of milk or cream. It is created by churning fresh or fermented cream to separate the butterfat from the buttermilk. Butter has been around for thousands of years, with the earliest records of butter making traced back to 2000 BC in ancient Mesopotamia.

Today, traditional butter production remains largely the same as ancient times. Cream is extracted from milk and churned until the fat globules come together and form butter. Salt or other flavorings may be added. Butter manufacturers must follow standards of identity in many nations. In the U.S., butter must contain at least 80% butterfat.

Butter is commonly made from cow’s milk but can also be made from the milk of other mammals like sheep, goats, and buffalo. The animal’s diet affects the color and properties of the resulting butter. For example, cows that eat grass produce butter with a yellow color.

Nutrition Content: Margarine versus Butter

Now that we have covered how margarine and butter are made, let’s analyze the calorie and nutrition contents of each.


At first glance, margarine appears to have fewer calories than butter.

One tablespoon (about 14g) of margarine contains approximately:

  • 100 calories

In comparison, one tablespoon (about 14g) of butter contains approximately:

  • 102 calories

Therefore, margarine contains slightly fewer calories per tablespoon than butter. However, the calorie differences are minimal. Both butter and margarine should be consumed sparingly as part of a balanced diet.


Butter is 100% fat, containing 11-12 grams of fat per tablespoon. Margarine also contains 11-12 grams of fat per tablespoon. So whether you opt for margarine or butter, you will be consuming around 11-12 grams of fat per 14 grams (1 tbsp) serving.

However, the types of fat differ between the two products. Butter contains more saturated fat while margarine contains more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Butter has 7-8 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon compared to just 2 grams in margarine. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to help support heart health.

Vitamins and Minerals

Butter contains more naturally occurring vitamins and minerals than margarine.

One tablespoon of butter provides small amounts of:

  • Vitamin A: 11% Daily Value
  • Vitamin D: 3% Daily Value
  • Vitamin E: 2% Daily Value
  • Vitamin K: 1% Daily Value

Margarine does not naturally contain vitamins. However, some brands are fortified with added vitamins and minerals like vitamins A and D. Check the Nutrition Facts label when comparing brands.


Butter contains cholesterol, with 24 mg per tablespoon, while margarine does not contain cholesterol.

For reference, the American Heart Association recommends limiting cholesterol intake to 300 mg per day. Consuming too much dietary cholesterol can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Trans Fat

The worst type of fat for heart health is artificial trans fat. Some margarines contain trans fat from the partial hydrogenation process. Always check the ingredients list and select margarines free of partially hydrogenated oils.

Butter does not contain any artificial trans fat.


Salt is added to butter and margarine for flavor. Unalted versions of each spread are also available.

On average, one tablespoon contains:

  • Butter: 90 mg sodium
  • Margarine: 80-100 mg sodium

The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day. Moderating your intake of salted butter or margarine can help reduce overall sodium consumption.

Key Nutritional Differences Between Butter and Margarine

To summarize the key differences:

Nutrition Fact Butter Margarine
Calories 102 cals per tbsp 100 cals per tbsp
Fat 11-12g per tbsp (mostly saturated fat) 11-12g per tbsp (mostly unsaturated fat)
Vitamins & Minerals Contains vitamins A, D, E, K May be fortified with added vitamins
Cholesterol 24mg per tbsp 0mg cholesterol
Trans Fat No artificial trans fat May contain some artificial trans fat
Sodium 90mg per tbsp 80-100mg per tbsp

Health Impacts: Butter versus Margarine

With their different nutrition profiles, what does the science say in comparing the health effects of butter and margarine?

Heart Health

Several large studies have suggested that replacing saturated fat (like butter) with polyunsaturated fat (like margarine) may modestly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, other analyses have not found a significant link between saturated fat reduction and heart disease risk.

Much depends on the rest of the diet. For optimal heart health, the American Heart Association advises focusing on an overall healthy dietary pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, poultry, fish and nuts while limiting saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and added sugars.

Weight Management

Butter and margarine have nearly identical calories and total fat per serving. Evidence on whether margarine aids weight loss more than butter is inconclusive.

To manage a healthy weight, total calorie intake and activity levels matter more than simply substituting margarine for butter. Limiting overall intake of spreads and focusing on whole foods is best.


Limited studies show mixed results on whether margarine versus butter intake impacts insulin resistance, inflammation, and other diabetes risk factors.

Overall, moderating intake of all saturated fats, including butter, and choosing healthy unsaturated fats may benefit those with diabetes. But more research is still needed comparing margarine to butter directly.


The relationship between butter, margarine and cancer risk remains unclear.

Some epidemiological data links higher intakes of total fat, saturated fat and butter consumption to certain types of cancer. But other analyses have failed to find a clear association between butter intake and cancer.

There is limited evidence that replacing butter with vegetable oil spreads like margarine may modestly reduce cancer risk. But more research is needed comparing margarine and butter head-to-head.

Recommendations: Should You Choose Margarine or Butter?

Based on the available evidence, here are some recommendations when deciding between butter and margarine:

  • Limit serving sizes of both butter and margarine. Consuming too much of any fat can increase calories and adversely impact heart health.
  • Look for soft tub margarines without trans fat. Check the Nutrition Facts label and pick tub margarines free of partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Select soft margarines fortified with plant stanols and sterols. Studies show they help lower LDL “bad” cholesterol.
  • Use liquid oils like olive oil in place of solid fats when possible.
  • Include other sources of healthy unsaturated fats like avocados, nuts, seeds and fatty fish.
  • Enjoy butter in moderation if you prefer its taste and don’t have high cholesterol or heart disease risk factors. Opt for whipped butter to reduce saturated fat.

Research does not prove definitively that margarine is healthier than butter, or vice versa. Both can be included sparingly as part of an overall balanced diet focused on whole, unprocessed foods.

The Bottom Line

So does margarine contain fewer calories than butter? The answer is margarine has slightly lower calories per tablespoon compared to butter. However, the differences are small. Both butter and margarine should be used in moderation.

When it comes to nutrition and health impacts, more significant differences emerge. Butter contains more saturated fat and cholesterol. Margarine offers more unsaturated fat. But some margarines still contain trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils, which are unhealthy for the heart. Butter provides some naturally occurring vitamins and minerals that margarine lacks, unless it’s fortified.

Research does not conclusively prove margarine is a healthier choice than butter. But tub margarines free of trans fats and fortified with plant stanols/sterols may offer some potential heart health benefits over butter. Yet butter may be preferred for its flavor and natural nutritious properties.

For optimal health, limit intake of all saturated and trans fats. Enjoy both butter and margarine in moderation as part of a balanced diet focused on fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, fiber-rich whole grains and healthy fats from sources like fatty fish, nuts and liquid oils.

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