Is butter really better than margarine? Dieticians settle the decades-long debate

It’s the great debate that has divided nutritionists for decades – butter or margarine?
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Saturated and trans fats have been blamed for high cholesterol, obesity and Australia’s number one killer, cardiovascular disease.

In fact, there aren’t many diseases or illnesses that these unhealthy fats aren’t linked to. Most of us try to limit our intake by cutting down on fried and processed foods, but how much thought should we be giving to the type of spread we use in cooking and smother on our toast?

Can the type of butter or margarine we use really make a big difference to our health?

The simple answer is yes, according to some of Australia’s leading dietitians.

The Fat Difference

We all need fat in our diet for energy and to support our body’s functions. Polyunsaturated fats, also known as essential fatty acids, lower LDL cholesterol, aid in brain development, control inflammation and promote healthy skin and hair.

Saturated and trans fats, on the other hand, raise our risk of heart disease by increasing the “bad” LDL cholesterol in our blood.

“In reality, the majority of us are consuming too much unhealthy, saturated fat in our diet,” says dietitian and nutritionist Lyndi Polivnick. “The recommendation is to keep intake of saturated fat to 10 per cent of total fat.”

Historically, butter, was considered a luxury food – one reserved for the wealthy because it was expensive to produce.

(Credit: (Image: Getty))

Butter or Margarine?

Historically, butter, was considered a luxury food – one reserved for the wealthy because it was expensive to produce.

It’s made from cream that is churned and contains around 50 per cent saturated fat and 4 per cent trans fat – the fats that raise our cholesterol levels.

“Butter was traditionally demonised, as it is relatively high in saturated fat, after evidence coming from the 1970s and 1980s linked diets that were high in saturated fat to heart disease,” says dietitian Susie Burrell.

Margarine spreads with the Heart Foundation Tick have around 28 per cent saturated fat and less than 1 per cent trans fat (most about 0.1-0.2 per cent).

“I would argue that neither butter nor margarine is needed in the diet at all,” says Susie, adding that the saturated fats in butter and margarine “are not metabolised as energy, so are more likely to be stored over time, increasing the risk of abdominal weight gain and diabetes risk”.

“If you are getting fats from nuts, olive oil, avocado, meats and dairy, you do not need to add extra fat in butter or margarine,” she says.

If you’re looking to cut out butter and margarine altogether, there are some healthier replacements.

(Credit: (Image: Getty))

Yet for those of us who cannot bear the thought of giving up our yellow spread, the Heart Foundation recommends switching from butter to margarine on our morning toast and lunchtime sandwiches to remove almost 3 kilograms of saturated fat from our diet in a single year. Plus, “Australian margarines have some of the lowest levels of trans fats in the world,” says Shane Landon, a dietitian at the Heart Foundation.

Yet, recent statistics show a rise in butter sales. In the 12 months to September 2013, 47 per cent of grocery buyers bought butter in an average four-week period, up from 44 per cent in the year to September 2009, according to findings from Roy Morgan Research. Margarine sales have declined slightly since 2009, with 54 per cent of grocery buyers purchasing it in an average four week period in 2013 – down from 59 per cent. So why are so many Australians ignoring the advice to make the change?

A common argument from butter advocates is that it is more natural with fewer ingredients, but Shane Landon says the truth is that both types of spreads are processed to some degree. He also believes there is a lack of knowledge about how margarine is manufactured.

“I think there is some confusion around the process of making margarine in Australia,” he says. He is referring to hydrogenation – a chemical process that converts oils into solid or semi-solid fats. In Australia, hydrogenation has been replaced by the process of esterification, where oils are combined with other ingredients such as milk, water and salt to create a smooth consistency for spreading.

The Heart Foundation claims esterification can develop margarines to be lower in saturated fats and to contain barely any trans fats. Cooking television shows have also been accused of promoting the use of butter. “They’re a form of entertainment, not nutritional education,” says Shane Landon.

“Some say they prefer the taste of butter in cooking. It’s a big task to get these people to change to margarine. The Heart Foundation’s message is consistent – if you’re using a spread, olive, canola, sunflower or a margarine spread, used sparingly, is best.”

Heath spread alternatives

If you’re looking to cut out butter and margarine altogether, there are some healthier replacements.

“Some margarines include plant sterols or phytosterols [found in most plant foods, such as vegetable oils], which can help lower your cholesterol levels,” says Lyndi Polivnick. “If you’re eating margarine and butter on a daily basis and struggle with high cholesterol, swapping to margarine with plant sterols is a great option.”

However, Susie Burrell disagrees and doesn’t recommend cholesterol-lowering spreads.

“While there is some evidence to show they do reduce blood cholesterol levels, to me it makes no sense to add in more processed fat to reduce cholesterol,” she says. “The best way to reduce cholesterol is to lose weight and get your fat balance right with nuts, seeds, grains and olive oil.”

Frequently asked questions

Why is margarine not better than butter?

Butter contains a lot of artery-clogging saturated fat, while margarine contains an unhealthy combination of saturated and trans fats. The healthiest option is to avoid both and use liquid oils instead.

What is the healthiest spread?

Light margarine with phytosterols, which contains 45 to 50 calories with one gram of saturated fat in one tablespoon, or vegan olive oil spread, which contains 80 calories and two to three grams of saturated fat in one tablespoon.

What can I put on my toast instead of butter?

Olive oil, nut butter, cream cheese or ricotta, avocado and hummus.

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