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Margarine vs. butter: Which is better for the environment?


Picture this: it is a typical morning. You wake up and follow your standard routine of booting up your computer for work. While waiting, you prepare a simple breakfast – a cup of hot coffee with fresh milk, and slices of toasted bread with butter.

And right there, before you officially start your day, you’ve unknowingly amplified your carbon footprint through your diet.

What we consume has both direct and indirect impacts on the environment. Factors such as how that food is grown, processed, packaged, transported and sold, all influence how big an impact it has on the planet.

In this article, we compare margarine and butter, to find out which is better for the environment.

Farming stage causes largest environmental impact

Each stage of the food supply chain has an impact on the environment, and for most foods, the farming stage contributes the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Other stages such as packaging and transportation contribute relatively lower emissions. In the case of margarine versus butter, the agricultural stage of growing oilseeds and related farm activities for margarine causes significantly less GHG emissions than that of producing milk from cows for butter.

This generally applies to all animal-based foods, which tend have a greater carbon footprint, require more energy, and use more land than plant-based foods.

In a comparative life cycle assessment of margarine and butter consumed in the UK, Germany and France, margarine was shown to emit one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide, require up to 50 percent less energy, and use approximately half the land needed by butter production.

Margarine production is also less likely to pollute the air, soil and water through acidification and eutrophication. In the same study, butter production was found to contribute at least twice as much acidification and eutrophication potential as margarine production.

Palm oil-based margarine

Margarine can be made from different types of vegetable oils such as palm, soybean, sunflower, rapeseed and corn.

At the farming level, when we use sustainably produced palm oil to make margarine, it requires a lot less land to yield the same amount of oil. This further reduces its impact on the environment.

When it comes to reducing your impact on the environment based on the food you consume, margarine is definitely a much smarter option compared to butter. So the next time you start your morning with toast and coffee, you might want to consider using margarine instead of butter, and a non-dairy creamer while you’re at it!

Download a copy of this factsheet here.
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