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Eat Well ·

Butter vs Oil, Margarine, Spray - What's the Difference?

By Lisa Talamini - RD

With so many different versions of butter and margarine on the market, it can be overwhelming to decide on the right product for you. Options run the gamut of stick, tub, liquid and spray formats. Ingredients can be animal or plant-based or a mix of the two. Plus, manufacturers may add a range of functional ingredients for health benefits. On top of that, butter vs. oil is a common question as more people are wanting to make the best choice. We are breaking down the most common choices, their health impacts and best uses.

What's the Difference & When to Use Sticks, Spreads, and Sprays


What’s In It?

When to Use


Primarily solid (saturated) fat, can raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

Reserve for baking and making rich sauces where flavor and texture count. 

Stick Margarine

Primarily vegetable (unsaturated) oils which are heart protective, but also contains more trans-fat than butter. Elevates LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and decreases HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

Reserve for baking and making rich sauces where flavor and texture count

Soft/tub and liquid margarine

Primarily vegetable (unsaturated) oils and minimal to zero grams of trans-fat.




Use in place of butter/stick margarine for baking, grilling, frying, roasting, sautéing and baking with less saturated and trans-fat.

Light butter Whipped butter

Light margarine




Half the calories, fat, saturated and/or trans-fat as some of the fat has been replaced with water. 




·         Choose light butter to get the flavor of butter while reducing calories and saturated fat.

·         Try light margarine to reduce calories, saturated/trans-fat.

·         Use both to stretch your portion size or make room for other healthy fats like avocado, nuts, olives, etc.

·         Use whipped butter for a fluffier texture, larger portion, and less saturated fat.

·         Note: When baking, you can often substitute light margarine/butter for a full fat product without impacting quality.

Hybrid butter and margarine

Less saturated fat as some of the solid fat has been replaced with a liquid fat like canola, olive or flaxseed oil.  Also provides heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

Pick this product if you want to increase your monounsaturated fats.




Stanols and phytosterols

Ingredients that, when eaten in adequate amounts, may help reduce cholesterol levels.  These naturally-occurring ingredients in certain fruits/vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds can be added to margarine to help reduce cholesterol in individuals who have elevated levels.   

Use in cooking or as soft spreads if cholesterol is your aim. 




Liquid cooking spray

A mix of soybean/olive oil and water. Provide zero calories and grams of fat/saturated fat with about 15 mg sodium per 5 sprays. 

Use to top vegetables, side dishes, and popcorn and to oil a cooking/grilling/baking pan.


Cooking Spray vs. Oil

Is cooking spray better than oil? Well, cooking spray is primarily made of oil (unless stated otherwise), but it can have other artificial ingredients that would not be found in pure oils. We always recommend checking the label to see if the cooking spray you are using contains artificial ingredients. The convenience of a cooking spray is that is can be sprayed, saving you calories by preventing you from using too much1. A thinner coat of cooking spray will usually get the job done for a quesadilla, for example, but it may not provide enough slip for different foods.

Butter vs. Oil

Many people wonder, which is healthier butter or oil? Although butter adds excellent flavor, switching to olive or canola oil may be a healthier choice2. Because of the high levels of saturated fat in butter, it may increase your risk of heart disease3. In addition, margarine contains trans-fatty acids that can be bad for your health. For an overall healthier choice, use olive or canola oil to prepare your food and use butter sparingly when the flavor is important.

Plant-based Options & Substitutions

Whether you are in a pinch or may want to incorporate more plant derived oil or butter into your diet, there are several different options you can choose from. Common plant-based oils that are widely used include olive oil, avocado oil, cocoa oil, shea oil, and safflower oil. The most common is olive oil. These oils contain omega fatty acids, oleic acid, and other important vitamins. Again, the taste of these oils might be different than what you are used to using when cooking, but the health benefits are something to consider.


Coconut oil is another popular alternative. Many people praise coconut oil for its many health benefits and a multitude of different uses. The fats in coconuts are medium-chain triglycerides that may be more easily digested by the body as opposed to animal-based trans-fat4. However, it is still very calorically dense as it is mostly saturated fat.


Coconut milk can be another tasty option in place of butter in baking and in sauces. However, it does give a rich coconut taste, so make sure you take that into account beforehand.


If you have a sensitivity to dairy or casein, ghee, or clarified butter, can be another good option to cook with. It is almost identical to butter, but it does not have lactose or the milk protein casein5. It also performs better than butter in high heat, but people tend to prefer the taste of real butter over ghee.

Simple Tips to Streamline Your Healthy Fat Choices

  • Read labels and avoid products that list “partially hydrogenated” oils as an ingredient, as these fats contain trans-fat.
  • Make plant-based, vegetable oils, and soft or tub margarines your primary sources of added fat.
  • Regularly select products that have less than 2 grams of saturated fat and 0 grams of trans-fat per serving.
  • Remember the 80/20 Rule: Think moderation. It’s not necessary to make the healthiest choice 100% of the time, what matters is that you are making healthier choices most of the time.




2. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000095.htm





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