ButterButter, which is an animal product, is high in both saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, increasing our risk of heart disease and stroke. There is also some concern about butter containing traces of hormones and antibiotics fed to animals. On the plus side, butter is a good source of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
MargarineMargarine is made from vegetable oil, is low in saturated fat and has no dietary cholesterol. But because the liquid vegetable oil in stick margarine is hardened through a process called hydrogenation, it is high in trans-fatty acids. Trans fatty acids, or trans fats, are thought not only to raise levels of bad cholesterol, but also to lower levels of good cholesterol, the kind that offers a defense against artery-clogging fats. This makes trans fats worse than saturated fat.
Light SpreadsFortunately, there are a number of light spreads and margarines on the market that are trans-fat-free. Some of these spreads also contain plant sterols and stanols, which actively block the absorption of cholesterol, making these spreads much healthier alternatives to regular margarine and butter. Because these light margarines and spreads have not been hydrogenated, they are soft and usually sold in tubs rather than sticks.
CookingThe main problem with light spreads and tub margarines is their unsuitablility for cooking and baking. Because they contain only about 25% fat compared with at least 80% in butter and margarine, they would ruin most recipes. For cooking, choose heart-healthy canola or olive oil instead. Better still, if you can use cooking sprays or broth you will save additional fat calories.
BakingIn baking, regular butter and margarine provide textures and flavors that are difficult to reproduce. It is also hard to substitute a liquid fat for a solid fat, since they behave differently with the other ingredients. Oils are generally not suitable for cookie recipes, although they are usually fine in muffins and cakes. Fruit purees, low fat or fat free sour cream and yogurt can often be used instead of butter or margarine in cakes and muffins, but the outcome will be affected in some way, often leading to a denser product.
The Soft ApproachThe American Heart Association (AHA), among others, recommends margarine over butter, advising us to choose soft varieties over hard, with no more than 2 grams of fat per tablespoon, and with liquid vegetable oil as the primary ingredient. In general, the AHA recommends using natural, non-hydrogenated oils such as canola or olive oil, and to look for processed foods without saturated fat or trans fats.
For baking cookies, however, I still prefer to use butter over margarine, only much less of it. With some fine-tuning most cookie recipes can stand using about half the quantity of butter called for and still turn out well.