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Margarine is built on a mixture of plant-based oils.  The most often used oils are soybean oil and palm oil. The retail price of margarine has increased faster in 2022 than the price of butter.  Margarine prices grew at 31 percent and butter prices grew at 22 percent in 2022.  Comparing January 2022 to January 2023 the margarine price grew by 45 percent and butter prices grew at 26 percent (Table I).  Sales of butter and margarine vary over time.  When partial hydrogenation was linked to increases in trans fats, margarine sales dropped, and butter sales picked up.  When margarine processors quit using partial hydrogenation, margarine sales picked up. When it comes to taste, butter is the clear winner.  When it comes to price, margarine is the clear winner (Chart I).

Table I - Percent Increase of the Price of Butter and Margarine
Chart I - Prices of Butter and Margarine

In the prior post, the pricing of butter was covered in detail.  Margarine will be explored in this post.


The price of butter increased to record highs based on shrinking inventories in cold storage.  There is currently some inventory recovery and wholesale prices are now dropping.  Margarine prices escalated due to a global shortage of plant-based oils resulting from the huge drop in plant-based oils from the Ukraine.  Prices of margarine are lower than butter prices and at a time of escalating food prices with inflation, some shoppers are likely favoring margarine.


Margarine was developed by the French initially in 1869 and further refined during World War I and World War II.  Butter was in short supply and options were explored.  The original versions of margarine were not plant-based but were made from animal fats such as tallow.  Over time, margarine has been refined to provide a product with a similar look and taste to butter and is made from plant-based oils.  The medical and health factors have flip-flopped a few times.  Margarine was outselling butter, but when it was discovered that partial hydrogenation caused trans fats, which increased bad cholesterol and lowered good cholesterol, sales dropped.  In 2015 the FDA mandated that partial hydrogenation is not “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) and must be eliminated by 2018.  Additionally, the amount of trans fats must be listed in the label if above .5 grams per serving.  Margarine changed from partially hydrogenated oil to maintain a desired melting point to blending plant-based oils (primarily palm oil) to achieve the desired melting point.  Margarine is now supported by the medical profession over butter primarily for heart health reasons.


The current medical comparison of butter and margarine is consistent.  Respected sources such as the Mayo Clinic, Web MD, Harvard Medical School, and many others have all published papers based on research.  Their conclusions are all closely aligned.  Butter is a saturated fat which will increase bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol and can cause blockage in arteries.  The change in 2018 to eliminate partial hydrogenation have shifted the balance to favoring margarine over butter. As mentioned above, trans fats resulting from partial hydrogenation were deemed to be so unhealthy that they are now regulated by the FDA and must be disclosed on the package labels.  

Stick margarine as opposed to tub margarine uses hydrogenation to make the product firmer but it also becomes a saturated fat.  For that reason, the medical community states that tub margarine is considered healthier than stick margarine.  

Both butter and margarine have 80 percent fat with the other 20 percent mostly water.  Margarine does include preservatives, color additives, and taste enhancers, but they are not considered a health issue.  The research organizations add that both butter and margarine are high in calories and should by consumed in limited quantities.


Butter is a natural product.  The only ingredient in butter is butterfat (and maybe some salt).  Margarine is a manufactured product with additives for color, taste, and preservatives to increase shelf life.  The trend to natural foods has decreased the market for margarine.  


With support from the medical community, margarine sales are again growing.  When combined with the high retail prices for butter and overall food inflation, some consumers will change to margarine.  In grocery stores, butter and margarine are offered next to each other, making comparisons easy.  

Butter and margarine are a small element in the overall food budget.  Many consumers will choose to accept the higher price for a small piece of their food purchases.  As consumption and retail sales data become available, the picture will be clearer.