Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Butter or Margarine--Which is Better Now?

What a confusing topic our spreads have become.
Margarine was first invented with the intention of developing a product healthier than butter. In the late 1960's when studies found people who had high cholesterol were having more heart attacks, the food science community went about trying to lower the cholesterol intake of consumers. Since butter contains cholesterol, the search was on for a substitute.
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring fat in all animals. It's made in the liver and does serve some good purposes (it's a precursor to vitamin D). But too much can clog our arteries and lead to heart and artery disease.
So the bright idea was to take corn oil, which is cholesterol free (as are all plant oils) and make a yellow stick of spread out of it to mimic the butter we love.

A decade or so later, scientists found that cholesterol in the diet is not, in fact, the primary cause of elevated cholesterol levels in the blood. It's saturated fats (those solid at room temperature) that are responsible for raising the levels of so-called bad cholesterol.
Now let's take a look at that unsaturated corn oil margarine. Ooops! They had to saturate it (a process filling certain openings in the structure with hydrogen atoms) to make it solid so it would look and feel more like butter. Now that it's solid, it's not so good for you anymore! The idea of margarine being "healthy" because it contained no cholesterol changed in the eyes of the nutrition science community to "unhealthy" because it's a saturated fat. Now we know the trans fats (those that are changed from unsaturated to saturated) are so unhealthy they are becoming banned in some places. Other oils have been replaced in commercial products over the years such as coconut oil and palm oil, both of which are naturally more saturated because of their chemical composition.

Fortunately, there are many other options available. While I wouldn't choose a stick of margarine over a stick of butter, margarine comes in many forms that are more healthy because they are less solid. A tub of margarine is more healthy than a stick because it's less saturated (you can tell because it's softer). The squeeze margarines are still more healthy (more liquid, less solid). The spray margarines are best of all if you're watching your blood lipids. The simple rule is, the more liquid (the less solid) the better these are for your cholesterol levels.
Many of the less-solid forms are also lower in fat and Calories too--and we're always watching our calories!

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