There are multiple differences spanning several perspectives. Originally margarine was developed for economic reasons and that advantage continues to this day, some 250 years later. Beginning in the 40's and 50's, it was thought saturated fat caused an increased risk of heart disease so margarine was marketed as having health benefits due to its non-saturated oils. Later we discovered that partial hydrogenation, the process that turns liquid oil into solid fat, created a serious health hazard plus saturated fat has proven not to be the evil we once thought it was. We've even discovered it has protective qualities and is one of the keys to successful weight control. Still, Americans consume enormous quantities of margarine, twice as much as butter.
From a culinary standpoint: Butter's saturated fat doesn't break down under heat the way margarine does becoming gummy. Although the milk solids in unclarified butter burn around 250F, simple clarification raises butter's working range to around 400F. Margarine tends to melt at a higher temperature -- a disadvantage for mouthfeel, sometimes an advantage in baking (butter cookies spread more than those incorporating shortening or margarine). Margarine, being an industrial product, can be manipulated to have specific desirable characteristics in manufacturing applications. Butter, on the other hand, is easily transformed into any number of superior-tasting sauces. Whoever heard of oleomargarine blanc?
pierino is a trusted source on General Cooking and Tough Love.
And just to simplify ChefOno's accurate remarks: butter is a natural dairy product. Margarine is a synthetic one.
Just to supplement chef ono's, hydrogenated denoted trans fat (even though the nutritional index more than likely says otherwise). What loophole they found, I don't know.Thus, the importance of reading labels though. Peanut butter is a widely used condiment that takes advantage of said loophole as well.On a side note, DIY butter kit/churns were florin around for the holidays. If you have a local dairy farm and can get raw cream... way better butter.
There is nothing wrong with hydrogenation (or puns). It's *partial* hydrogenation that creates a problem. Hydrogenation is the process of adding hydrogen atoms to a non-saturated fat molecule. If you fully hydrogenate the fat, you end up with saturated fat. Not an issue. If you only partially hydrogenate the fat, you end up with trans fat. Under our current understanding, there is no safe level of trans fat consumption.
Which leads to the second issue, labels claiming "Zero Trans Fat" and then in tiny letters "Per Serving". Check the ingredient list for the words "partially hydrogenated". That's your trans fat. Under current federal law, margarine and shortening may contain over 4% trans fat and still remain legal.
So, again, if the label says "hydrogenated" like the jar of Skippy Chunky RoastedHoneyNut in my refrigerator, not a problem. Only if it says "partially hydrogenated" does the product contain artificial trans fats. Clear as mud -- and just as tasty? Write your congressman.
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