Butter Is Toast

. . .  in an environmental showdown with margarine

My father-in-law was in the dairy business for over 40 years, and—as might be expected—he had nothing good to say about margarine. He called it a synthetic product of the chemical industry. Butter, of course, was natural and therefore better. I mischievously delighted in pointing out to him the purported health benefits of margarine over butter. If it had been available at the time, a recent life cycle assessment (LCA) comparing butter to margarine in the U.K., Germany, and France could have helped me make an even stronger case for margarine—this time from an environmental standpoint. (1) The comparative LCA found that margarine has a significantly lower environmental impact than butter in four important areas: global warming potential (GWP; i.e., carbon footprint), eutrophication potential, acidification potential, and land impact. Butter has a smaller environmental impact than margarine only with respect to its photochemical ozone creation potential, POCP. Margarine’s POCP is higher because hexane, which facilitates the formation of ozone in the lower atmosphere, is used in the vegetable oil–extraction process used to make margarine. Making margarine from vegetable oil is undeniably an industrial chemical process!

What makes the results of this comparative LCA so striking is that the impact differences between butter and margarine are so large. The carbon footprint of butter is over four times that of margarine. The large GWP for butter is attributable primarily to methane from dairy cows’ digestive systems, emissions from manure, and the production of feed for the cows. For the eutrophication and acidification impacts, the footprint of butter is at least twice that of margarine. Finally, land use for butter is about twice that of margarine because more land is needed to produce the feed for dairy cows than is needed to grow the crops for vegetable oil used to make margarine.

Overall, this is not one of those comparative LCAs where the differences between the two products are slight and the results might change depending on a small improvement here or there. The researchers had no hesitation in decisively concluding that margarine beats butter by most environmental measures.

—David Tyler

(1)  Nilsson, K. et al. 2010. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment doi:10:1007/s11367-010-0220-3.

David Tyler is the Charles J. and M. Monteith Jacobs Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oregon.

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8 Comments

  • Ian March 16, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    David, I’m a little confused by your gleeful endorsement of American margarine. Theoretically it might have a better carbon footprint. However, most margarine in this country is made from hexane extracted oils, which need to be bleached before they are palatable. This process is highly volatile, and leaves behind up to 5% transfats in the oils. If margarine was made from cold-pressed oil, it would be fine, but as it stands, your father-in-law is right: most margarine in this country is synthetic crap, and dangerous to your health.

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  • Tim Gieseke March 17, 2014 at 6:26 am

    Enough knowledge to make one dangerous.
    As we move into a networked, multi-valued world, but bring our old luggage of linear thought and singular values, we will certainly end up in a worse place.

    Would you like your diet based on it global footprint? Extrusion du jour.

    A landscape without bovine in many parts of the world is not a functioning landscape.

    Scenario 1: A landscape has an abundance of bovine and soil, air., water lifecycles exist. People advance to industrialization of most all and start accounting for all the new carbon that they are emitting to live out their glorious lives. They become astonished that all this carbon is being emitted and start subtracting carbon from the fundamental aspects of ecology. EcoCommerce is tricky business and we have a tendency to be just smart enough to outsmart ourselves.

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  • John Ambrose March 17, 2014 at 7:35 am

    This is analysis is too simplistic . In addition to the excellent points Ian and Tim make, consider the lower environmental impact of perennial crop fields (pastures and hay fields) for feeding dairy cattle vs. annual crop fields for vegetable oil production. Also, I suspect that there is an excess of cream in dairy production, with so much demand for skimmed or partly skimmed milk and low fat diary products such as cheese and yoghurt, thus it is very unlikely that extra cattle are needed to sustain butter production.

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  • janet pesaturo March 17, 2014 at 8:14 am

    It seems you are comparing margarine to butter from factory farm cows. The analysis may differ if you compare margarine to butter from grass/hay fed cows on small, diversified farms. Grass/hay fed cows do not require grain monocultures for feed production, and pasture supports more biodiversity than grain monocultures. Manure in small diversified farms is used as fertilizer for vegetable crops needed by humans, thus causing less eutrophication than factory dairy farms. Margarines are produced from crops grown in chemically maintained monocultures; I am not aware of any that are not. Finally, it is becoming increasingly clear that butter and other products from grass/hay fed animals contain higher levels of omega 3 fats, relative to omega 6 fats. And that appears to have health benefits. Some of the synthetic margarine-like spreads are high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which is more healthful than the old fashioned margarines with trans fats, but even if the new fangled spreads equal grass fed butter in health risks/benefits, I’m going with butter from farms where farming is done right.

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  • Rob Lindner March 17, 2014 at 9:29 am

    One caveat – I am not able to access the full article published in the International Journal of LCA; Springer only allows limited preview.

    I believe it is important to highlight the type of oils used in margarine vary, and palm oil is a key ingredient in many, if not most margarines. The LCA appears to take into account the carbon released by converting land to palm-oil plantations, which is important, because the clearing and burning of lands for these plantations makes countries like Indonesia some of the world’s greatest carbon emitters. I hope that calculation also includes the role of tropical rainforest as one of the greatest carbon sinks on Earth. However, the carbon component is not the only issue. The tropical forests provide critical habitat that many endemic and highly endangered species rely on like Sumatran rhinos, tigers and elephants, and orangutans, and those are just some of the better-known, charismatic mammals. It’s also crucial to consider the millions of people living in forest communities the directly rely on said habitat and the surrounding populations that benefit from the wider ecosystem services it supplies when deciding how to top your toast.

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  • Janira April 27, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    If you want to reduce your carbon footprint EAT LOCAL. Eating local means cutting down on transport of food which means cutting out carbon dioxide from transport of the food. Eating local AND organic means cutting down on toxic pesticide and herbicide residue polluting the air and water. So say no to coconut water unless you live in Thailand, Costa Rica, or Brazil and chill out with all them damn bananas.

    On another note, butter, especially when from grass-fed organic cows, is way healthier for you than margarine. It has Omega 3′s, CLA’s and vitamin K2- does margarine have any of that? Nope.

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  • Anna Fiona June 23, 2014 at 5:55 am

    Thank you for the perspective. We have a movement right now based on ascetics and catch phrases;
    Farm to Fork=so novel, so new, why didn’t anyone else think of that? As if food had previously come from the moon. Put that on a menu and you have people flocking for a reservation.
    Buy Local= to reduce footprint, when in fact numerous studies have shown produce at farmer markets have been inefficiently transported (fossil fuel usage/pollution), in relation to calories purchased, in comparison to large quantity train transport from across the country etc. Also, most use conventional methods of farming/pesticides, they are not organic, so the amount of chemicals that you are both consuming and supporting to be deposited into the environment cancels out much of our good will. I love my farmers market, it is cheaper than the grocery store, right on the water, gorgeous shopping! I believe in supporting community economies, however I am of no illusion that my bag of 5 peaches that was trucked in from 50 miles-is efficient.
    Grass Fed=all cows are grass fed, even most factory farmed cattle are finished on grass for a measly two weeks, so the label often has little meaning. Most of our public lands are used for this practice at the detriment and decimation of biodiversity-Grazing is the number one cause of bio loss Additionally, the studies that have come out evaluating RISK FACTORS (artery health/heart disease/cancer/obesity) between conventional and grass fed show no difference. “Butter is Back” debacle shows just how easy it is to get swept up in our gluttonous zeal, of course no one has heard about how it was entirely miss represented in the media-see below for link. Harvard has put out a statement of retraction on the study.
    Organic=which can mean a lot of different things depending on the product and even the state in which the product is being sold.
    Family Farm=this could feasibly qualify 99% of the farms we have in this country. Only two producers are corporate owned (Smithfield and Tyson), the rest are all “family” owned and operated businesses. So what exactly is the definition? The number of animals, the number of people who run it or if they are related to one another, the acreage, what is it that we deem “small” or “family.” Even though every one I speak with seems to somehow be eating “local, pastured raised bio diverse farm produce” Less than 2% of produce is made this way, so it is mathematically not possible; someone is either not telling the truth, or we are being taken for a ride. Again, the title could mean anything.
    Eat Like Your Grandma=WTF? Who’s grandma? Let’s hope it is not mine because even though she was straight from farm-literally, she was a Minnesotan dairy farmer, she died obese, diabetic, and had heart failure. She cooked with buckets of lard, ate white bread (sometimes home baked in that farm kitchen we love to fantasize about) and no desert had enough white sugar.
    Believe it or not, I am not poopooing these practices, however I have observed that when I use even a modicum of curiosity (&research), I see it is far more complicated than we like it to be. I believe in freeing our food system, and decentralizing it from pharma and distributors, and government executive branch policies (these are the corporate entities that control the legislation and paradigm). However, many of the above practices are in fact keeping us in the same old food system, just with a pretty new names and labels.

    Thanks again everyone, enlightening comments.

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