Butter, margarine and similar spreads shouldn’t form a significant part of your daily diet because they’re concentrated sources of fat and calories. But you don’t have to cut them out completely. They give flavor to food and, when you cook with them, they add color and texture. Some fortified, enriched and otherwise enhanced spreads you’ll find at the supermarket may even have potential health benefits. Before you make purchases, read our tips to learn what spreads to buy and what to skip.
Spreads and your health
Margarine versus butter: The debate has raged for years. The final answer still isn’t in, but some things are clear—most margarines and spreads contain little, if any, saturated fat, while butter contains 7 grams per tablespoon (that’s 35 percent of the total recommended daily limit for someone consuming 2,000 calories a day).
On the other hand, margarines and spreads made with partially hydrogenated oils are sources of unhealthful trans fat, which is even worse for your heart than saturated fat because in addition to raising LDL (“bad”) cholesterol like saturated fats can, trans fat also lowers HDL (“good”) cholesterol and has other harmful effects. It’s somewhat of a trade-off—though many margarines and spreads now contain very little trans fat or no trans fat at all. Keep in mind that a “trans-fat-free” claim on a label does not necessarily mean the product contains no trans fat, as manufacturers can make the claim if a serving has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it adds up if you eat several servings. (The American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of total calories—or 2 grams a day for a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet.) The only way to know for certain that your spread is truly free of trans fat is to make sure that no “partially hydrogenated” oils appear in the ingredients list.
If you’re counting calories, regular margarine is no better than butter; both have 100 calories per tablespoon. But you can find margarines and spread with fewer calories—as few as 45 per tablespoon—depending on their ingredients. The more water in the spread, for example, the less the fat and calories.
Understanding spread options
Butter is pretty straightforward—it’s just cream that’s churned until it solidifies. It consists of butterfat, water and milk proteins. Butter is sold either salted or unsalted. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires butter to have at least 80 percent butterfat, but imported European brands, favored by chefs, can have up to 86 percent. Though butter is usually made from cow’s milk, it can also be made from the milk of sheep, goats, water buffalo and other animals. Clarified butter and ghee is 100 percent liquid butterfat (the water and milk solids have been removed).
Today’s supermarket butter options include butter blends (combinations of margarine and butter) and light butter (which is lower in fat and calories). They offer a bit of rich butter taste without the full dose of saturated fat. Also available is whipped butter or margarine, which can sometimes fool you into using less. Because air is incorporated in the mix, these products are easier to spread. The whipping process reduces calories by 30 to 40 percent.
Margarines are a bit more complicated than butter. Most are made with one or more types of vegetable oil, such as soybean, corn and canola, in liquid and/or partially (or fully) hydrogenated form. Margarines also contain water (the “lighter” the margarine, the more water and less oil), salt and ingredients such as mono- or diglycerides (emulsifiers), lactic acid (a preservative) and colorings (often beta carotene). All margarines are fortified with vitamins A and D, some with vitamin E and B vitamins, and some even with calcium. A few contain buttermilk or other dairy ingredients, such as whey.
A growing number of margarines now include “fully hydrogenated” oils rather than “partially hydrogenated” oils. This usually means that the oils have been “interesterified,” that is, their fatty acids are unchanged, butthey have been shifted around to produce the desired performance characteristics. Manufacturers are increasingly using interesterification in place of partial hydrogenation in an attempt to make more healthful spreads, but there’s no science to know for sure whether, or to what degree, the fats created in this way are better for you than trans fats. It’s possible that interesterified fats have different physiological effects from those of naturally occurring fats and oils. Though it’s too early to raise a red flag about these fats, this is another good reason to not go overboard with any type of spread.
Margarines that boast omega-3 fats may not necessarily contain enough for a heart-health benefit, but that doesn’t stop companies from bragging about it. Some have small amounts of fish oils. Others contain rich plant sources of omega-3 fats (such as flaxseed or canola oil), which may have health benefits of their own, but can’t replace those from fish. On the other hand, margarines with sterols or stanols help lower blood cholesterol. Derived from pine trees or soybeans, these plant chemicals block absorption of dietary cholesterol in the body.
Spreads: good-to-know facts
Fats and oils are similarly built and the terms are often used interchangeably, especially in the kitchen. The main difference between the two is that fats are solid at room temperature (77ºF, 25ºC), while oils are liquid. In general, the harder a fat is at room temperature (think butter), the greater the percentage of saturated fat it contains. That’s why it’s a good idea to use liquid vegetable oils in place of solid fats, like butter, lard and shortening—and if you do use solid fats, to use them sparingly.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for spreads
- If you eat only an occasional tablespoon of a spread, it doesn’t much matter which one you choose. Though many margarines claim to have a buttery taste, there’s no substitute for the real thing—and a pat (or two) of butter every now and then won’t hurt you.
- For more regular use, choose a tub or squeeze margarine—preferably one made from liquid vegetable oils—over stick. To avoid trans fat, make sure no “partially hydrogenated oil” is listed in the ingredients. To avoid interesterified fats, whose health effects are largely unknown, check the ingredients list. Some suppliers use the term “interesterified.” The term “fully hydrogenated” does not automatically mean that interesterified fats are present, but they are likely to be.
- Diet or reduced-fat margarines and spreads are fine to use on bread and rolls. But because of their high water content, they don’t work well in baking and can spatter in a hot skillet and make toast soggy.
- For help lowering cholesterol, opt for spreads that contain plant stanols or sterols, such as Benecol. Two to three tablespoons a day in place of other spreads can lower LDL by as much as 15 percent.
- If you want to boost your intake of calcium and vitamin D, look for margarines or spreads that provide 10 or 20 percent of the Daily Value of these two nutrients, respectively.