Which is the healthier choice – butter or margarine?
Which do you prefer on toast, in sandwiches or in a hot, fluffy jacket potato? We've been told for years that low-fat spreads and margarine are healthier alternatives to butter, with many of us cutting butter out of our healthy diets altogether. But are these so-called healthy alternatives actually any better for us?
Healthy heart, happy tummy
Olive-oil spreads such as Bertolli have been marketed as a way to enjoy the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. Whilst it's true that olive oil is a good fat, and can be beneficial to keep your heart healthy, is this a healthier alternative to butter? Bertolli lists no less than 16 ingredients including colour, thickener, preservatives and emulsifier; chances are, you don't know exactly what's in it – and that's not good. Other olive oil spreads contain similar artificial ingredients. When you compare this to the ingredients list on the back of a pack of Tesco salted butter, you'll notice there's just one added ingredient – salt.
Go with your gut
For years, my mum has always maintained that butter is a healthier choice than any of the low-fat spreads around. It's more natural, and it tastes better, is her argument. The key is eating it in moderation; a little of what you fancy does you good. Stay away from using butter in cooking; use olive oil instead. Spread your butter thinly and opt for unsalted or reduced-salt butter. You could even use 'spreadable' butter with vegetable oil blended into it, although this will sometimes mean extra additives.
Yellow isn't a natural colour
Whilst butter is naturally yellow thanks to the ingredients and the churning process, did you know that margarine is actually a dirty, unappetising shade of grey before colourings are added? For years, we have been led to believe that margarine or spread is the healthier choice, which is why news from scientists in the US may come as a surprise.
Re-analysis of studies carried out in the 1960s and 1970s has revealed that margarine is more damaging to your health than butter. The research was carried out using a sample of middle-aged men from Australia, who had suffered from angina or a heart attack. Half the men were asked to replace animal fats in their diet with safflower oil and safflower margarine (similar to sunflower oil), whilst the other half continued using butter. The results were surprising. Those who ate more of the safflower oil products were almost twice as likely to die from heart disease as well as other causes.
Saturated fats are bad
So are saturated fats really bad for you? Well, it depends. Natural saturated fats may be less harmful than you might think. In fact, these types of fats occur naturally in our bodies; they're essential for the production of some hormones, as well as aiding the absorption of vitamins and minerals. There isn't any substantial evidence which links the intake of saturated fats with heart disease and blocked coronary arteries. Which is what led many people to switch from butter to low-fat spreads in the first place.
Butter isn't bad for you
Whilst we're busy dispelling myths, what about this one? Butter isn't the enemy, and it's not bad for you, in moderation. It's high in beneficial saturated fats for a healthy nervous system and brain development, as well as vitamins and natural compounds packed with antioxidants and anti-fungal properties.
Changing times, changing ingredients
Low-fat spreads and margarines are certainly healthier than they once were. Did you know that margarine was once made with hydrogenated fats? When margarine was reformulated, vegetable oils began to be used. Today, the ingredients of 'spreads' may have changed, but are they really better for you?
Spreads which promise to reduce your cholesterol, such as Flora ProActiv and Benecol, both contain plant stanols and sterols, which can reduce cholesterol, but with some experts claiming that above-average cholesterol levels can actually be beneficial to overall health, is it worth spending more on these products and consuming the artificial additives they contain in the process?
Benecol Buttery contains a long list of ingredients in addition to healthy plant stanols and sterols. Rapeseed oil, vegetable oil, emulsifiers, preservative, acidity regulator, flavourings and colourings all feature on the ingredients list – and you can bet that the majority of these additives are not natural ingredients.
Is spreadable butter a healthy option?
What about the latest addition to our shelves, spreadable butter – a blend of butter and vegetable oil; is this any healthier than standard butter? Spreadable butter is usually blended with around 20 to 30% vegetable oil. Butter such as Anchor Spreadable contains butter, vegetable oil, salt and water, with no artificial colours, preservatives, flavourings or additives. Compare that to Anchor Original Butter, which contains only butter and salt, and you'll see there really isn't that much difference. Both contain the same amount of fat – 32g per 100g of butter.
Watch your cholesterol
It is the high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat that have given butter such a bad reputation. But did you know that eating saturated fat improves your blood lipid profile? It raises levels of HDL ('good' cholesterol) and changes the LDL from small LDL (bad) to large LDL (benign). Cholesterol-rich foods such as eggs have a similar effect on blood lipid profile. If you suffer from a medical condition such as familial cholesterolemia, watching your cholesterol is important. If not, there is no reason you should fear dietary cholesterol or saturated fat as part of a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Grass-fed butter is the best choice
In an ideal world, what we spread on our toast would be as natural and pure as possible. Butter from grass-fed cows (their natural diet) is far healthier than butter from grain-fed cows. It contains:
- CLA – this fatty acid can help lower your percentage of body fat and also has anti-cancer properties
- Vitamin K2 – a little-known vitamin that can help prevent osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer
- Omega-3 – grass-fed butter contains more omega-3 and less omega-6 fatty acid
- Butryate – this short-chain fatty acid is actually produced naturally by bacteria in your intestine. It can help to prevent weight gain, improve your digestions and fight inflammation
If you live in the USA, where cows are generally grain-fed, it may be true that butter can increase your risk of heart disease. In Australia, cows eat grass, so butter may contain more omega-3 and vitamin K2, reducing the risk of heart disease.
So what's the conclusion? Regardless of where you live in the world, if you don't have problems with your cholesterol, it may be healthier to eat butter than low-fat spread. Despite the fact that low-fat spreads and margarines can work to lower your cholesterol in the short-term, they may actually lead to an increased risk of heart disease and other health problems in the long-term.
Processed foods are simply not as healthy as natural foods – just one look at the colours, preservatives and additives in many popular spreads is a key to just how processed they are. If you don't know what all the ingredients in your spread are, don't buy it; it may be harmful to your health.