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Butter or Margarine – Which is better for You?

It is the never-ending debate, should we eat butter which is naturally made but contains more than 65% saturated fat or should we consume margarine which has little to no saturated fat but is chemically manufactured? The focus of the debate is on how the different fats in butter and margarine, saturated, unsaturated and trans fatty acids affect blood cholesterol levels. While it would make sense to say that humans have been consuming butter for thousands of years and therefore it must be good for us, there is plenty of research to suggest that the saturated fat in butter can increase blood cholesterol levels, specifically LDLs (bad cholesterol), which can lead to coronary heart disease (killing more Australians each year than any other single disease). Margarine, on the other hand, has been demonised for containing trans fatty acids which are more deadly for the arteries than saturated fats. With people’s lives at risk it is easy to understand why this topic is so passionately debated.

Butter is naturally made by churning pasteurised cream. Because it is naturally made it contains a number of important vitamins including A, D, E and selenium as well as omega-3 and omega-6 in small amounts. Butter also contains 65% saturated fat. Interestingly, some research has found that 20% of the fatty acid chains found in butter are short- or medium-length chains which are used directly for energy for the body rather than being stored. These findings should not negate the fact that the consumption of saturated fats can increase one’s blood cholesterol levels and therefore the risk of coronary heart disease.

Margarine was created in the late 1800’s and produced by a chemical process which turns oil into spread. It increased in popularity during the mid 1900’s as information emerged about the affects of saturated fats on the human heart. There was much controversy surrounding margarine when it was found to contain trans fatty-acids, which damage the arteries and increase the risk of coronary heart disease more than saturated fats do. Manufacturers say they have now fixed the problem and that these days most margarine contains little to no trans fats. Some margarine manufacturers have gone one step further to develop a margarine made from plant sterol, found to not only decrease LDL cholesterol but also increase HDLs (good cholesterol). Margarine can also be fortified with those important vitamins found in butter.

As a nutritionist, I suggest switching from butter to margarine. The saturated fat found in butter as well as many full-fat diary products has a huge impact on blood cholesterol levels. I can undertsand the argument that butter is naturally made and is OK when used as part of a healthy diet I also know that a typical western diet can always be healthier. For instance, while my modern western diet may be relatively healthy, I still consume foods that do not suit my body and from my experience I would say this is typical of most people. To lessen the affects of an ‘unhealthy’ diet on blood cholesterol levels it is best to consume low- saturated fat products such as margarine. If margarine is not for you remember that there are other alternatives such as avocado, nut butter (i.e. tahina sauce), hummus or olive oil.

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