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Is Butter Better . . . or Not?

Personal Health

By Nancy Johnston Hall, Illustration by American Heart Association

If you’re confused about which is best for your health, butter or margarine, be comforted—you’re not alone. For years we heard that butter was supposed to be bad for your heart. But then came the headlines, “Butter is Back!” and “Butter is Natural—from the Farm not the Factory,” and out came the butter dishes again. Issue settled? Definitely not. In fact, for health experts, there was never any uncertainty. Butter is a saturated fat, and saturated fats raise blood cholesterol and clog arteries, thus increasing your risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The longstanding, evidence-backed advice to eat unsaturated fats (vegetable oils) in place of saturated fats (butter, fatty meats) was recently reinforced by findings of a large observational study published in the British Medical Journal. Scientists reported an 18 percent increased risk of heart disease in people with the highest versus lowest intake of the most commonly consumed types of saturated fat. The study also clearly showed that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat is associated with lower heart disease risk.

Butter, in small amounts, is great for enhancing flavors, nutritionists and heart health experts say, but it shouldn’t be used in larger amounts as your all-around spread or cooking fat. Over the years, I’ve developed my own ways of using butter as a flavoring. I melt a pat of butter over a steaming bowl of vegetables, for instance. And I recently sautéed onions for onion soup in vegetable oil with a pat of butter added for its unmistakable flavor. But we put olive oil on the table instead of butter for lightly dipping crusty bread in. And for spreading on toast and such, we use “light” tub margarine.


Not all margarines are created equal

Part of the confusion over butter versus margarine has to do with the negative rap margarine got because some margarines contain trans fat. Like saturated fat, trans fat increases blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. In addition, trans fat lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol levels. But by choosing carefully, you can avoid any margarine that contains trans fats. Read labels and choose a tub margarine with “0 g trans fat.” Stick margarines are more likely to have trans fats than tub margarines.


The bottom line for a healthy heart

Use soft margarine as a substitute for butter, and choose soft margarines (liquid or tub varieties) over harder stick forms. Look for a margarine that has “0 g trans fat” on the Nutrition Facts label and has the least amount of saturated fat. No amount of trans fat is acceptable in a spread.


If you have high cholesterol, check with your doctor about using soft spreads that are fortified with plant stanols or sterols, such as Benecol and Promise Active, which may help reduce cholesterol levels.


Nancy Johnston Hall is a retired health writer with 40 years of experience. She has a master’s degree in medical journalism. Two years ago, Nancy and her husband became part-time residents of San Miguel.


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