There’s no rule that says the spread on your bread must be yellow. In fact it’s easier to just dig into an avocado and spread on some green instead – that way you can avoid an argument about what’s better, butter or margarine.
Both these yellow spreads have their pros and cons. Butter, a food we’ve eaten for thousands of years, tastes better and comes with no colourings or preservatives - but its saturated fat content can raise levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Margarine made from canola, olive oil or sunflower oil on, the other hand, contains fats that help lower LDL cholesterol – but doesn’t taste as good. And although margarines made with olive oil, another fat with a long track record, sound reassuringly Mediterranean, the amount of olive oil in them can be as little as 16 or 23 per cent.
Somewhere in between butter and marg are dairy blends – butter blended with fats like canola or sunflower oil to reduce their saturated fat content and improve their spreadability, but still high in saturated fat.
Meanwhile, cholesterol lowering margarines have added plant sterols (compounds found naturally in plant foods) that help prevent cholesterol being absorbed into the blood – but don’t reduce cholesterol already stuck in the arteries. Although studies have found that plant sterols can lower cholesterol, they’re no magic bullet, says nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton, author of The Choice Guide to Food.
“They don’t tackle the underlying cause of high cholesterol, which is consuming too many foods high in saturated fat,” she points out. Some studies also show that plant sterols reduce the absorption of protective nutrients like carotenoids from fruit and vegetables.
But if you think outside the margarine tub, there are other good tasting heart healthy options to put on bread.
Just because studies show that polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats lower LDL cholesterol doesn’t mean you have to get them from margarine, says Stanton who thinks we’re better off getting more of our healthy fats from whole foods rather than yellow spreads. After all, compared with butter and margarine, foods like avocado, nut butters and hummous have the advantage of extra nutrients and fibre, and extra virgin olive oil has benefits over margarine.
They don’t cause the same heated debate either. Right now there’s an argument that saturated fat in foods like butter is harmless and that a major culprit in the obesity epidemic is the low fat message of the 80s and 90s that got us eating too many processed carbs. Some researchers also believe that too many omega-6 fats – fat from foods like sunflower and safflower seeds used in margarine and much processed food – has caused problems too. Humans need a healthy balance of both omega-6 and omega-3 fats and the theory is that widespread use of omega-6 fats in the modern food supply has sent this balance out of whack. But does this mean that saturated fat is a healthier choice?
“It’s fair to say that when people substitute low fat highly processed carbohydrate foods for full fat foods then there’s no advantage in terms of weight loss and health - but that doesn’t mean saturated fat is good,” Stanton says. Still, it may be that not all saturated fats behave in the same way, she adds – recent research comparing the effects of butter and cheese on bad LDL cholesterol found that while butter increases it, cheese actually lowers it. Why this happens isn’t clear though – some researchers suggest it may be because the calcium in cheese causes the body to excrete more fat.
But it’s safe to predict that the butter v. margarine debate isn’t over yet, so it’s just as well as there’s other good stuff to spread around instead.
PS For anyone keen to learn more about vegetarian eating, the Medical Journal of Australia has just published a special supplement Is a Vegetarian Diet Adequate by leading Australian nutritionists, including Rosemary Stanton, that provides credible info on nutrition (and, yes, you can get enough protein, iron and zinc if you're vego) as well as practical tips for planning plant-based meals.
What do you spread on bread?