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Comparative life cycle assessment of margarine and butter consumed in the UK, Germany and France



The goal of the study was to compare the environmental impact of butter and margarine. Altogether, seven products were studied in three European markets: UK, Germany and France.


The approach used for the analysis is descriptive (attributional) LCA. The SimaPro software PRé 2007 was used to perform the calculations. Data for the production chain of the margarine products (production of raw materials, processing, packaging and logistics) were compiled from Unilever manufacturing sites, suppliers and from literature. The edible oil data inventories have been compared with those in proprietary databases (ecoinvent and SIK food database) and they show a high degree of similarity. For the butter products, data on milk production and butter processing were taken from various published studies for the countries of interest. Sensitivity analyses were conducted for a number of parameters (functional unit, allocation method, impact of using different oil, milk and dairy data, impact of estimating GHG emissions from land use change for certain oils) in order to evaluate their influence on the comparison between margarine and butter. The sensitivity analyses demonstrate that the initial results and conclusions are robust.


The results show that margarine has significantly lower environmental impact (less than half) compared to butter for three impact categories global warming potential, eutrophication potential and acidification potential. For primary energy demand, the margarines have a lower impact than butter, but the difference is not as significant. Margarines use approximately half of the land required used for producing the butter products. For POCP, the impact is higher for the margarines due to the use of hexane in the oil extraction (no similar process occurs for butter).


The margarine products analysed here are more environmentally favourable than the butter products. In all three markets (UK, DE and FR) the margarine products are significantly better than the butter products for the categories global warming potential, eutrophication potential and acidification potential. These findings are also valid when comparing margarines and butters between the markets; for this reason they are likely to be of general relevance for other Western European countries where similar margarine and butter production systems are found.

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  1. Traditional margarine has an 80% fat content; products which contain lower fat levels cannot be labelled ‘margarine’, but are instead referred to as ‘spreads’ for on-pack labelling. However, the words spreads and margarine are used interchangeably in this paper.

  2. Unilever is one of the world’s leading suppliers of fast moving consumer goods (Foods and Home and Personal Care Products).


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Correspondence to Katarina Nilsson.

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Responsible editor: Niels Jungbluth

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Nilsson, K., Flysjö, A., Davis, J. et al. Comparative life cycle assessment of margarine and butter consumed in the UK, Germany and France. Int J Life Cycle Assess 15, 916–926 (2010).

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  • Butter
  • Carbon footprint
  • Fat
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Margarine
  • Spreads