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Lisa's Blog

Butter or Margarine: Which is better for you?

Lisa Cutforth - Saturday, January 09, 2010

Which is better for you butter or margarine?

It is the age old debate, whether to choose the "less processed", purer but saturated fat of butter or the processed, trans fats from margarine.  The two schools of thought are as divided as the "Love it or Hate it" Marmite campaign, it would appear.  Until now...

Having been brought up in a family that despised margarine and wouldn't hear of the downside of butter, I definitely grew up with a taste for it, and so naturally was pleased when I was able to find all these health benefits.

Health benefits of butter:
Butter really is rich in beneficial nutrients, including antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and beneficial fatty acids.  
Butter may be protective against cancer with antioxidants like vitamin E and selenium and anti cancer agents like vitamin D and conjugated linoleic acid.    

However it is our heart health we are concerned about when avoiding butter, so let's look at the facts. 
Butter which is high in saturated fat raises cholesterol, but it actually raises the good with the bad.  Elevated cholesterol levels have been implicated in heart disease.

Dietary guidelines for saturated fat recommend no more than 10-15g a day.  One tablespoon of butter contains 7g of saturated fat, so that's a lot.

What about margarine?
Margarine on the other hand is made with plant oils and is generally unsaturated, containing more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils which help to reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) without raising total cholesterol.  Unsaturated fats are usually healthier and they tend to be liquid at room temperature.  When we consider margarine, it is first necessary to consider how margarine is made. 

Basically the process involves taking a generally healthy plant oil which is naturally in a liquid state and converting into a solid.  It is this process that produces the undesirable effects associated with some margarines.  Very often this process involves hydrogenation, which is the addition of hydrogen to vegetable oils to form a more "solid" fat, which makes it more spreadable and less likely to spoil (or oxidise and taste rancid).     

The problem with this hydrogenation process is that trans fats are formed.  Trans fats affect cholesterol with a double whammy, they both increase the bad cholesterol and DECREASE the good and have actually been found to make blood platelets stick together. 
One tablespoon of this type of margarine will typically give you 3g of trans fats and 2g of saturated fat.  Arguably, not actually better than butter, when you consider that butter will also increase good cholesterol.

However, now it is possible to buy margarines that are trans fat free (this may mean they contain 0.5-2g of trans fats per serve.  These are usually the ones recommended by the Heart Foundation and are found in tubs or liquids rather than in wrapped "blocks". 
(They get around adding the hydrogen by adding water in the process). 

So, when buying margarine you need to be sure you read the labels and be sure you choose varieties that read: trans fat free and no hydrogenated oils.

The Solution:

Here is what I do, which I believe gives you the best of both with the least "processing":

I mix half butter and half olive oil and make a delicious and very spreadable spread. 

The recipe:

250g good quality pure butter (no salt added)
1 cup olive oil

Leave the butter out so it becomes soft, then using a beater blend the two together until the oils are mixed and the texture is smooth.  (No need to overdo, this may lead to oxidation of the olive oil).  Turn the mixture into an airtight container and store in the fridge.  The fridge will set it so that it firms up.




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