The debate continues. Butter or Margarine? Is butter bad raising your risk of heart attack? Is margarine made from the same molecules as plastic? Which one is more likely to give you cancer? Public opinion is currently leaning away from processed foods and towards whole foods, which in general, is a good thing. But can butter be included in this category of healthful whole foods? To answer this question EPW Dietitian Melanie Sharpe lays out the facts.
Is Butter Better than Margarine?
Firstly, what is butter?
Butter is made from dairy fats and salt. For many people, its limited ingredient list adds to its appeal. Not to mention the taste. To make butter cream is churned until the fat solids separate from the liquid. These are then rinsed, salt is added in and it is shaped. Voila, butter.
Is butter healthy?
Unfortunately, the simplicity of the ingredient list does not make it a health food. Because it has a fat content of at least 80%, and mostly saturated fats, it is very high in energy and therefore portion sizes need to be limited or it can quickly contribute to weight gain. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend keeping saturated fat intake to less than 10% of daily energy intake. Click here to learn more about the different types of fat in the diet and how they affect your health.
In terms of benefits, the deep yellow colour of the butter is due to the beta-carotene content, and it has a high presence of fat soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E and K. These vitamins help to support your skin health, immune function and vision. It also contains butyrate, which is a type of fat that may help to improve your gut health, however at this point the research is inconclusive.
What is Margarine?
Margarine is made from oil (most often canola, olive, flax, soy or sunflower) which is mixed with a solid vegetable fat (this turns it into a solid spread), skim milk, water and an emulsifier (for example, soy lecithin, which keeps the different ingredients from separating) and it is fortified with vitamin A and D (to match the levels found in butter). There are also often preservatives included to prevent mould growth, such as preservative 202, which is potassium sorbate.
A true margarine contains at least 80% fat, however there are very few of these available today. It is more common to see ‘spreads’ which contain 60-70% fat, meaning that technically, they are not margarine, however for simplicity these will be included under the title of margarine.
Is margarine really bad for me?
There are one hundred and one myths out there regarding the detrimental health effects of margarine, but most of them are untrue. It is not actually made from the same molecules as plastic and it’s not poison. When you hear health statements regarding margarine it is important to check the source of the information.
It is common to hear that margarine is bad for you because of the high content of trans fats, which are carcinogenic. Trans fats need to be avoided because they not only raise our bad cholesterol levels (LDL) but they also lower our good cholesterol levels (HDL). This statement is more accurately applied to margarines produced in the USA. In Australia we use a different production method (interesterification rather than hydrogenation) which results in the end product containing <1% (often 0.2g per 100g) trans fats, which is technically classified as ‘trans-fat free’. This is actually less than the content of butter, which sits at around 3-4% trans fats. It is best to avoid cheaper, generic margarines or the older stick type margarines as they are more likely to have a higher content of trans fat.
What are Functional Spreads?
Functional spreads contain ingredients with specific health benefits such as plant sterols, specific vitamins or they can be lactose or cholesterol free or be reduced fat (<30%). Plant sterols function to block cholesterol absorption and if you have high levels of cholesterol the Heart Foundation recommends that you consume 2-3g of plant sterols daily, which equates to 4-6 teaspoons of plant sterol enriched spread. These spreads also have less saturated fat than butter.
What about Dairy Blends? Where do they fit?
Dairy blends are a mix of butter and vegetable oil. They are easier to spread than traditional butter, which means you are likely to use less; however, they have more saturated fat than all other spreads.
And the winner is…
The choice between butter or margarine (inc. functional spreads) is individual and should depend on your current health status. Although they provide a similar amount of energy per serve (1 tsp gives you around 7g fat and apx 250kJ) they have a different fatty acid and nutrient profile. If you generally have a healthy diet based on whole foods, participate in regular physical activity with no specific heart health concerns, then a little butter in your diet won’t hurt, but choose a salt reduced variety. However, if you have high cholesterol or other heart health concerns it might be a good idea to substitute butter for a functional spread with plant sterols and a lower saturated fat content. If you are concerned you should speak with your doctor or a registered Dietitian.
The key to your choice
The key is moderation and portion size. Try to avoid trans fats and always read the nutrition information panelon the product you’re choosing. If you really want to maximise the health benefits of your spread, switch out butter and margarine for alternative spreads like avocado, nut butters, tahini or evenextra virgin olive oilas these are packed full of vitamins and healthy fats!
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