Butter or Margarine? Choosing What’s Best for Your Family

Once upon a time, slathering food with butter was a simple pleasure instead of a guilty pleasure.

That was before we learned about butter’s saturated fats contributing to heart disease.

Awareness of saturated fat took the joy out of soaking a baked potato in buttery goodness, though joy was partially restored with the invention of margarine.

Margarine, though less flavorful than butter, did not contain those dastardly saturated fats. It was considered a healthy substitute, and millions of consumers made the switch to margarine with the encouragement of doctors and nutritionists. Drenching a baked potato in margarine was better than eating it dry, until the hidden hazard inside of margarine was discovered.

Researchers realized that the trans fats in margarine were arguably worse for heart health than the saturated fats in butter. Trans fats are a double-edged sword that raises LDL (bad cholesterol) and lowers HDL (good cholesterol). So the assumption that eating margarine was healthier than consuming butter turned out to be false, and it was an assumption. That claim was never substantiated by research.

The Vocabulary of Butter and Margarine

Saturated fats are fats containing carbon atoms that are saturated, or filled to capacity, with hydrogen atoms; saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature.

Trans fats, or trans fatty acids, are created by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils, making them more solid. They are also called partially hydrogenated oils.

Cholesterol is a fat that is produced by the liver and is necessary for normal body functioning such as the production of hormones. All of our cells have cholesterol in the outer layer.

  • HDL Cholesterol is the cholesterol in our bloodstream that is carried by high density lipoproteins (fat transporters), believed to scrub our blood vessel walls free of excess cholesterol and carry it back to the liver, where it is changed into bile acid.
  • LDL Cholesterol is the cholesterol in our bloodstream carried by low density lipoproteins (fat transporters) that are not always able to get the cholesterol back to the liver for processing. So the cholesterol gets stuck in places like our artery walls.

Stanols are naturally occurring plant substances that can prevent cholesterol from being absorbed into our bloodstream.

Choosing Butter or Margarine – or Something Else

Today, the conventional wisdom is that butter should be consumed sparingly because it contains saturated fats that increase our LDL levels. The stick margarines that have been around for years are still being purchased by consumers who must not be aware that they are a trans fat health hazard. However, some of the newer margarines have only a little saturated fat, are high in healthy unsaturated fat and contain no trans fat.

There are also stanol-based spreads available now such as Take Control and Benecol, which can help lower LDL levels. Other spread choices are made with vegetable oils as a base. Vegetable oils are full of mono- and polyunsaturated fats that have proven health benefits. Products made with olive oil are especially beneficial and recommended by many nutritionists.

What most doctors recommend, as a rule of thumb, is avoiding all trans fats and limiting our intake of saturated fat. This is easy to do because food nutrition labels are required to indicate a product's saturated fat and trans fat content.

Taking Charge of Our Health

Not all doctors and scientists agree that saturated fats and cholesterol are the evil twins behind heart disease. These substances have been associated with heart disease, but not all research substantiates the connection. What we can do is keep informed, eat as wisely as we know how to, stay active, consult with our doctors, and exercise common sense.

Source: Harvard Health Publications

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