Butter is better because it is natural, and margarine is one molecule from being plastic. We’ve heard these more than once, but what is truth? And how do we make an informed decision when there are so many items facing us at the supermarket, all touting their health claims?
The Truth on Butter
Butter is made from cream or milk which is churned with some salt and water until the yellow paste which can be nearly impossible to spread is produced (extra salt can also added for taste). Due to its low calcium levels and high fat percentage (a whopping 80%), it is not considered as a dairy product.
It contains almost no protein and carbohydrate, and is very high in saturated fat, which when consumed in excessive amounts, can elevate LDL (bad) cholesterol levels which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Butter should be avoided by those with high cholesterol, and overall usage should be limited. It is a source of fat soluble vitamins, although the amount of these does vary by season. For baking purposes, unsalted butter is the best option to use.
What About Butter Blends?
For those who would like a butter alternative but do not want to use margarine, this is the next best option. These are usually a butter or milk fat which is blended with vegetable oils to produce an easier to spread product with a different fat ratio. As butter blends usually contain additional water and unsaturated oils, they contain less saturated fat than butter, and have added vitamins.
Choosing a salt reduced variety is best, and looking at the label for the lowest saturated fat is a good idea if you have high cholesterol. Some products do go through additional modification processes, so although they contain the same ingredients as butter, they are a more user-friendly, spreadable version.
Margarine is made from a combination of mono and polyunsaturated fats combined with other ingredients to make a plant-based spread which behaves like butter, but does not taste quite the same. It has been around since 1869!
The fats in the margarine favour increasing HDL (good) cholesterol, and potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The myth about margarine being one molecule off being plastic is very much untrue, as margarine is made from vegetable oils, and plastic is made from polymers of ethylene molecules, which differ in their chemical structure, and a small change in this will not turn marg into plastic. Some margarines contain milk, but otherwise they are a combination of vegetable oil, water, salt, colouring, vitamins, and some emulsifiers to prevent separation.
Plant/Cholesterol Lowering Spreads
These are plant based spreads which contain plant sterols, which are similar to cholesterol. These sterols block the body’s ability to absorb some cholesterol, that in turn reduces blood cholesterol levels. You need to consume 2-3g of plant sterols per day, or 1-1.5 tablespoons of margarine to have a cholesterol lowering effect (can lower levels by 10%). Consuming additional amounts will not have any added benefit.
The bottom line?
For those with high cholesterol, butter and dairy blends are best to be avoided, and choosing a cholesterol lowering spread is best. Choice of product can come down to how often you use it.
Always choose a reduced salt variety.
Choosing products with less than 1% trans fat. This is a harmful fat that our body is unable to process.
For more information, book a consult with one of our dietitians for personalised advice.