I am still confused over the age-old controversy "butter vs. margarine." Which is better for me to eat?
I can certainly understand your frustration, especially when you are trying your best to follow a heart-healthy diet. Let's look at why butter and margarine both get a bad rap. First let's look at butter. The problem with butter is that it contains two cholesterol-raising ingredients: dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. Dietary cholesterol is found only in animal products so you won't find any cholesterol in a plant-based food or food product (such as margarine). Some of us are more affected by cholesterol in the diet than others, meaning some people can consume a diet high in cholesterol without blood cholesterol levels being affected; but others need only eat a little dietary cholesterol and their cholesterol levels soar. Overall, it is recommended that healthy persons consume no more than 200 milligrams cholesterol each day. Butter has 33 milligrams of cholesterol in one tablespoon alone!
Cholesterol aside, butter's biggest trouble is its saturated fat content. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are found largely in red meat, high-fat dairy products (like butter) as well as coconut and palm oils. When eaten in excess, saturated fats increase the "bad" cholesterol (LDL) as well as the "good" cholesterol (HDL). Despite the fact that saturated fats raise good cholesterol, they don't raise it enough for us to warrant you eating it. Saturated fat intakes are associated with increases in heart-disease risk. A healthy range of saturated fat is 10 – 15 grams each day. Just one tablespoon of butter contains over 7 grams of saturated fat!
Margarine is by no means void of artery clogging fat. The controversy with margarine lies with its level of trans fat, largely a man-made fat. Trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oils, making the oil more solid and less likely to spoil. This process is called hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation and allows stick margarine to be firm at room temperature. Trans fats have been shown to increase the "bad" cholesterol (LDL) similarly to saturated fats, and they tend to lower the "healthy" (HDL) cholesterol when eaten in large amounts. What's more – trans fats may make our blood platelets stickier. While no standard intakes of trans fat have been set, one tablespoon of stick margarine packs a whopping 3 grams of trans fat and 2 grams saturated fat.
But a little margarine "know-how" will help you reduce the amount of trans fat you eat. The more solid a margarine is at room temperature, the more trans fat it contains. For example, stick margarine contains the most trans fat, 3 grams in one tablespoon. Switch to tub or liquid margarine and you've cut that by almost 2/3, from 1–2 grams trans fat. And the good news is margarine manufacturers are now cutting their trans fat levels even further, to less than 0.5 grams per serving! This low level is allowed to carry the claim "trans fat free or zero-trans fat". How do they do it? They switched their first ingredient from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to water or liquid vegetable oil. It's best to keep the total trans fat as close to zero as possible and saturated fat under 2 grams per serving.
Now you have some choices and your answer: margarine (the trans-free tub or liquid kinds) is still recommended over butter. For those of you who choose to have a "little" butter once in a while (for example, 1 teaspoon a couple times a month) you shouldn't have to worry, but it's better to be safe than sorry. On a regular basis, aim for the growing number of tub and liquid trans-free margarines available on the market today and rest-assured that you are eating in a more heart-healthy manner. Keep in mind, margarines contain greater amounts of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils which helps reduce bad cholesterol when used to replace saturated and trans fats.
For more information on a heart-healthy diet plan, please contact the Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation Program at 216.444.9353 (or toll-free at 800.223.2273, extension 49353) and we can schedule a nutrition consultation - or - use our Remote Cardiac Nutrition Counseling Services.