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Thinking outside the tub

Butter v margarine ... the debate isn't over.

Butter v margarine ... the debate isn't over.

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.

"There’s no rule that says the spread on your bread must be yellow.."  

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?

63 comments so far

  • Dr. Stanton is mistaken about saturated fats being the "underlying cause of high cholesterol" because restricting saturated fats has very little impact on cholesterol levels compared to other major food components such as vegetables, viscous fibers, nuts, and plant sterols.

    In addition, you don't want your cholesterol to drop below the recommended upper limit of 200 because all cause mortality is lowest between 200 and 240. Lower cholesterol predicts greater susceptibility to infections.

    Recent research suggests that higher LDL levels have benefits for maintaining muscle mass as a person ages. In a strength training study, researchers at Texas A&M University found that 60 to 69-year-old male subjects gained more muscle mass if their LDL cholesterol levels were higher.

    David brown
    United States
    Date and time
    June 05, 2012, 10:22PM
    • agreed!

      Ms Stanton is still stuck back in the 1940s when Dr Ancel Keys (an epidemiologist, not a nutritionist) found what he thought was saturated fat causing blood vessel cardiovascular disease... unfortunately he was wrong as it was the previously unknown trans-fats causing this, as has been researched and proven many times since then. (and, no, I am not going to put references in this limited space - do your own research, I have)

      btw - Ancel Keys developed the army K-rations, which shows how rubbish he was at nutrition...

      We NEED saturated fats and cholesterol in our bodies for normal cellular functions, such as hormone production and every cell needs it to build a strong cell wall. Without saturated fats and cholesterol (and lots of it) in our diets, we will have chronic health issues.

      Margarine is a heavily processed food, going through dozens of processes with many chemicals and preservatives and colours... it is not good for you.

      For the truth in saturated fats with many research studies done across many different cultures all over the world over several generations, read anything from Dr Weston Price, or Mary Enig.

      Also, it's not just that unsaturated fats or oils are supposedly better for you, it's what you do with them. Yes, there are great health benefits from (say) olive ol, but it changes structure, becomes rancid and harmful when heated for cooking... but on salads etc it's fine.

      there's a lot more to saturated and unsaturated fats when you do your owne research, not listening to your favourite (and biased) current affairs show...

      Date and time
      June 06, 2012, 11:03AM
    • Thanks, Mossy - but for  now I think I'll stick with Rosemary Stanton's advice

      Date and time
      June 06, 2012, 11:09AM
    • @ Mossy. Where do you get your information from that Olive oil goes rancid and harmful when cooked - I would like to know who started this garbage?? The Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Mid East etc populace have been cooking with OO for generations and they seem to be doing OK - you know Med diet and all!! Note also that you need to cook tomato in olive oil in order to reap the maximum benefits of lycopene. My ancestors were fine with it and so am I.

      OO on and in everything - love it with Vegemite on tasted hand made bread.

      anna hathis
      plato's cave
      Date and time
      June 06, 2012, 11:45AM
    • when reading these sort of things - I always look at who is paying the researcher before I draw my conclusion

      Date and time
      June 06, 2012, 12:55PM
    • @ anna hathis - the theory to which you're referring applies only to extra virgin olive oil. Whilst the theory that cooking extra virgin olive oil into trans fats isn't true, what is true is that it has a much lower smoke point, so it is harder to cook with. Also, being stronger-flavoured, it isn't very nice to cook with, as it can be very bitter (although I accept this is subjective!)

      Neither of these are problems with lighter, later-pressed olive oils.

      The other factor is cost - a good quality extra virgin olive oil is much, much more expensive than a lighter one.

      Italians know all of this - that's why they only use extra virgin oil for dressings and bread, and choose lighter oils for cooking.

      Date and time
      June 06, 2012, 5:16PM
  • I'll happily spread some margerine on my weekend toast, but my weekday sandwiches have avacado spread.

    Date and time
    June 06, 2012, 10:08AM
    • My cholesterol results are fabulous. And I eat meat, butter, eggs, and coconut oil, and avoid margarine - tastes terrible! - and vegetable seed oils (olive and nut oils are fine). I also eat plenty of vegetables and plant foods, which are known to have much more positive effect on your cholesterol levels than dramatically reducing saturated fats. And plenty of exercise too. I also take a vitamin d3 supplement, also known to assist with healthy cholesterol levels. Interestingly some people report their cholesterol improves when they cut out wheat from their diet. Makes sense in that if you have a genuine wheat or gluten intolerance it causes an inflammatory reaction in your body, which responds by increasing cortisol and "bad" cholesterol. 

      Date and time
      June 06, 2012, 10:19AM
      • Personally I use a tasty organic flaxseed oil product (Melrose's Omega Gold) on my toast (I'm not affiliated with them in any way). Alternatives: simple balsamic/olive oil dip with crispy bread; mashed avocado on toast; a drizzle of cold olive oil on toast (avoid heating olive oil).
        I steer clear of butter and margarine, which tends to have some hydrogenated fats in it - very bad for you. On the rare occasions I bake, I bake with coconut oil (refined or unrefined; the former has no coconut flavour), which is good for you. I try to cook (on the stove) with coconut oil too, as it as a very high smoking point (which olive oil does not).

        Date and time
        June 06, 2012, 10:29AM
        • Hi, not sure why you would avoid heating olive oil as long as it doesn't exceed its smoke point - some info on cooking with olive oil here  I'm no fan of margarine but I didn't  think that Australian margarines do have hydrogenated fats in them - my understanding is that American and Australian margarines are produced differently and that info applying to margarine in the US may not apply to margarine made here.

          Date and time
          June 06, 2012, 11:19AM

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