Butter vs. margarine: Which is better?
Updated: March 22, 2013 6:50AM
These days, there’s much confusion over what spread should top your bread.
Butter advocates claim butter is natural, has been used for centuries, tastes better than margarine and contains important trace nutrients.
They claim further that some margarines contain trans fats. Like saturated fats, trans fats can raise blood cholesterol levels and low density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol, while lowering high density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol. They can also increase the risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Margarine supporters refer to the fact that butter, made from animal fat, contains cholesterol and high levels of saturated fat, whereas margarine, created from vegetable oil, has neither. Instead, it is higher in polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats. Research suggests these fats may lower blood cholesterol.
When the facts are taken apart and examined, margarine is the winner.
While it’s true that stick margarines are loaded with trans fats, making them less healthy, soft margarines — liquid and tub varieties — listing vegetable oil or even water as the first ingredient usually contain little to no saturated and trans fats.
Saturated fat is solid fat and is found in butter, other animal products and some vegetable oils. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone older than 2 years consume less than 7 percent of their daily calories as saturated fat.
Polyunsaturated fat is a liquid fat found mostly in fatty fish, plants and oils. In addition to boosting HDL levels, eating foods high in polyunsaturated fats may help control irregular heartbeats and high blood pressure.
Monosaturated fat is another liquid fat that solidifies when chilled. Olive oil and canola oil are both well-known monosaturated fats.
Trans fats may appear in animal products, but occur most commonly when liquid fats are hydrogenated to become solid ones, as in many margarines. The American Heart Association advises trans fats comprise 1 percent or less of your day’s calories.
To be labeled “margarine,” the product must contain 80 percent fat by law. When some of that fat is replaced with water, the butter substitute is called a “spread.” Read the Nutrition Facts for saturated and trans fats. The total for both should be 1.5 grams or less.
If you see the word “hydrogenated” anywhere, that’s a sure sign the margarine is high in saturated fat and trans fat.
Finally, don’t be limited to margarine as a food topping for your bread and baked potato. Experiment with other choices. Try dunking your bread in plain olive oil or olive oil flavored with roasted garlic. Refrigerating olive oil makes a usable spread on cold foods, although it will melt when added to warm ones. Some people enjoy tahini, or sesame butter, while others prefer the heartier hummus.
Making these changes will not only help you avoid spreads that harm your health, you will have added those that promote better health. ~.
Dr. Selvakumar Kunchithapatham is an interventional cardiologist who sees patients at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital