Margarine and olive oil are both widely used as healthier butter substitutes. How healthy are they? Does it matter which one you use? The answer to both questions: it depends. Let’s compare these two popular fats in this SPICEography Showdown.
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How does margarine differ from olive oil?
Margarine and olive oil differ in how they are made. Margarine is an emulsion of oil and water. That oil might be olive oil or some other cooking oil, but it has to be mixed with other ingredients to be made into margarine. An emulsion is a mixture of liquids that would not normally combine such as oil and water. The fat in margarine is sometimes solidified by adding hydrogen to it, which is what gives margarine its spreadable consistency.
In comparison, olive oil is simply the fat extracted from the olive fruit. Extra virgin olive oil is olive oil extracted in the first pressing of the olive fruit.
Margarine is solid while olive oil is in liquid form when it is extracted from the fruit.
The different sources and processing methods give margarine and olive oil different nutritional profiles. Hydrogenated margarine contains trans fats, which can raise bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol. As a result, a diet rich in trans fats is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Olive oil consists mainly of monounsaturated fatty acids, which are good for heart health. It is also rich in antioxidants, which can reduce inflammation and lower your risk of serious diseases including heart disease and cancer. Note that margarine made with olive oil can have these benefits too.
Can you use margarine in place of olive oil and vice versa?
Ordinarily, you will never use margarine to replace olive oil if olive oil’s flavor or health benefits are important to you. The texture and flavor are usually too dissimilar for it to be considered an ideal olive oil alternative. They won’t be enough alike even if the margarine is made with olive oil.
In a pinch, you might be able to melt margarine and use it to fry or sauté food in the same way that you would use olive oil. Depending on the oil used to make the margarine, you might even be able to use it at a higher temperature than would be possible with some olive oils such as extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil should only be used at a relatively low temperature. Using margarine instead of olive oil will alter the dish’s flavor profile dramatically.
Olive oil won’t be a good substitute for margarine in most cases. It won’t have the creamy flavor or the spreadable texture. You might be able to use olive oil in some recipes for cakes or muffins that call for melted margarine but not in ones that use the margarine in solid form. Olive oil will function like melted margarine and may make the recipe healthier. For best results use light olive oil for its neutral taste.
When should you use margarine, and when should you use olive oil?
Use non-hydrogenated margarine as a healthier butter substitute in cakes and other baked goods. Use it as a spread on bread when you want the creaminess of butter.
Use olive oil when you want the bright and herbaceous taste of olive oil along with its health benefits. Use it in salad dressings and traditional Italian marinara sauces.