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What Is Stick Margarine, Really?

Stick margarine: how does it differ from tub margarine? And which is the healthier option for you? We’ve scoured the Internet for answers so you don’t have to.

Stick margarine is a type of margarine that’s more solid than the margarine sold in tubs. Its melting point is near body temperature and can be left out on the kitchen counter in cooler weather (though it stays freshest when kept in the fridge).

Stick margarine is only available in well-stocked grocery stores and is used mainly for baking, such as making cookies, muffins, and cornbread. Most recipes in cookbooks, food magazines, and online newspapers mention butter and margarine interchangeably.

The ingredients list in a Los Angeles Times Food recipe for hamantaschen with poppyseed filling, for example, states, “1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter or stick margarine, cut into ½-inch pieces.”

So if you can’t find stick margarine in your supermarket, you can substitute it for regular margarine, the spreadable kind sold in tubs, or regular, unsalted butter. Since most brands of stick margarine contain 1 to 2% salt, you may want to adjust the amount of salt in the recipe to make up the difference.

Like the soft margarine sold in a tub, stick margarine is made by converting vegetable oils into solid fats, also called “trans fats,” and consists of 20% water and/or dairy and 80% fat. In the United States, the requirements for its production and labeling are determined by the Food & Drug Administration and published in the Standards of Identity.

When the French invented margarine in the late 19th century, they produced it from fractionated beef fat. Then, in the early 20th century, manufacturers began making margarine from coconut oil until they developed emulsifiers that allowed them to use the vegetable oils still used today—palm oil, palm kernel oil, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil.

Other ingredients used in the production of margarine include salt, emulsifiers, flavorings, and colorings. Most manufacturers also add Vitamin A to their products (these days, the Vitamin A that goes in our food is derived synthetically).

If you are lactose intolerant, know that most margarines contain dairy products, whether milk, skim milk, reconstituted dry milk, cream, or any combination of the above. Look for brands that say “dairy-free margarine” or “no-dairy margarine” on the label or use vegetable shortening.

The main difference between stick margarine and soft margarine is the type of fat that they contain. As Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. explains to readers of Mayo Clinic, the more solid the margarine, the higher the proportion of trans fats in its contents.

Trans fats, Zeratsky goes on to explain, are the harmful type of fats that should be avoided. They are known to raise bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. She recommends Mayo Clinic readers use soft margarine or butter whenever they have the option, as the two contain more heart-healthy fats than stick margarine.

Next up: Does Margarine Need to Be Refrigerated?

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Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.