On Your Health

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Butter or Margarine?

"Pass the ____, please?"

Butter or margarine. Which spread is really better for your health? It’s not surprising if you’re confused when shopping the butter aisle. As Karen Massey, a registered dietitian at INTEGRIS says, “There is a lot of confusing information about the health claims of butter and margarine.”

So put your butter knife down and learn what’s in both spreads before you decide to roll margarine over your muffin.

Not all fats are created equal.

To determine whether butter or margarine is the healthiest choice, we have to understand what’s in each. The biggest issue with both types is the fat content. However, you can’t just go by the total fat number on the nutrition label.

There are three different kinds of fats. Unsaturated fat is a heart hero and has been shown to reduce heart disease and lower cholesterol levels. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are especially heart-healthy. If most of the fat in your spread comes from these fats, it’s a good and healthy option.

Saturated fat, because it can raise your LDL (otherwise known as the “bad” cholesterol) level, can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and should only be consumed in moderation. Saturated fats can be found in many animal products and dairy, which make them hard to eliminate completely. The American Heart Association says it’s okay to consume 13 grams or less a day.

But trans fat is the real villain to health. If there is even a minuscule amount of trans fat in your spread, that’s a problem. Trans fats can raise your bad cholesterol AND lower your good cholesterol. Eating trans fats clogs your arteries and increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It's also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Avoid!

So... which option is better for me?

Neither is a clear winner. Both butter and margarine pose potential risks, so the butter vs. margarine debate is slippery.

As for weight control, that's a toss-up because oil and fat have the same number of calories.

When it comes to heart health margarine usually tops butter because it is made with vegetable oil, not animal fat, so it has much less saturated fat. But watch out! Many margarines contain those pesky trans fats, and can also have a lot of chemicals.

Still confused? If you need a little more information to make your decision, here are some of the best and worst products for your heart.

Bad: Stick butter and stick margarine.

One tablespoon of butter contains seven grams of saturated fat. That’s about half of your daily recommended amount. Butter is also high in “bad” cholesterol.

Stick margarine is usually not a good choice, either. The more solid the margarine, the more trans fat it contains.

This means you should mostly skip the stick and save it for special occasions.

Better: Tub margarine.

One tablespoon of tub margarine contains one gram of saturated fat and 0 grams of cholesterol, which is better than both butter and stick margarine. Additionally, some tub margarines are often whipped with air or water, so they have less calories, which makes them a better option for weight control.

In fact, some margarine is even fortified with ingredients that are good for your health. Says Massey, “Some margarines, like Bencol, contain plant stenols. These added stenols have been shown to have cholesterol-lowering abilities in many people." But she cautions, "These products are also more expensive and ideally need to be consumed on a fairly regular basis for best results.”

As we've said, the biggest issue with margarine, in or out of the tub, is the presence of trans fat. Check the nutrition label to make sure the margarine has zero trans fat in it.

It’s important to check the ingredient list, too. Another name for trans fat is “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” In the U.S. if a food has less than .5 grams of trans fat in a serving, the nutrition label can read 0 grams trans fat. But if the ingredient list has partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, it means the food contains some trans fat.

Best: Room temperature oils.

Vegetable oils like olive oil or canola oil are rich in heart-friendly unsaturated fats. Massey says, “From a nutrition standpoint I’d recommend using oils which are liquid at room temperature instead of solids like butter or margarine whenever possible.”

In many cases, these vegetable oils are perfect options for all your “butter” needs. “I would use canola oil for quick breads, muffins or stir-frying. Save the stick margarine or butter for special treats like pastries,” says Massey.

Bottom line: If you are craving butter or margarine instead of olive oil, go for a tub of whipped margarine. Look for a spread that doesn't have trans fats and has the least amount of saturated fat, and if it's fortified by plant stenols, even better.

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