1. Health

Butter or Margarine?

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Updated January 31, 2014

Both butter and margarine have good points and bad points, based upon the fat structures. Butter is butter no matter what the brand, but different brands of margarine differ in their fat structure and their health benefits.

Some types of margarine are actually good for your heart, but not all.

Butter is a dairy product made from cream, so it's high in saturated fats and cholesterol. Eating a diet high in saturated fats may lead to elevated cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Experts recommend you keep saturated fat consumption to less than 7 percent of the total fats you eat.

Margarine is a popular substitute for butter because it is made from vegetable oils that don't have saturated fats. They contain polyunsaturated fats that may help lower your cholesterol levels when used in place of saturated fats. This sounds like the perfect heart-healthy solution, doesn't it? Well, maybe sometimes, but not always. Consider several factors if you are switching from butter to margarine:

Some types of hard stick margarine are high in trans-fats, which may be more harmful than saturated fat. Trans-fats are created when hydrogen is forced into vegetable oil, which is done to give it a semi-solid texture. Trans-fats raise "bad" LDL cholesterol. When you buy margarine, be sure to read the Nutrition Facts Labels, which must state the amount of trans-fat per serving.

You may also want to pay attention to the type of vegetable oil used in your margarine. Corn oil, sunflower oil and safflower oil all contain large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and little omega-3 fatty acids. Both of these fats are essential because we need to get them from our diets. However, most people get plenty of omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3 fatty acids. Choosing margarine that is made from canola oil is one way to increase your intake of this important fat.

Some brands of margarine, such as Benecol, contain phytochemicals called sterols that may reduce high cholesterol levels when used regularly.

Sources:

Han SN, Leka LS, Lichtenstein AH, Ausman LM, Schaefer EJ, Meydani SN. Effect of hydrogenated and saturated, relative to polyunsaturated, fat on immune and inflammatory responses of adults with moderate hypercholesterolemia. J Lipid Res. 2002 Mar;43(3):445-52.

Lichtenstein AH, Erkkila AT, Lamarche B, Schwab US, Jalbert SM, Ausman LM. "Influence of hydrogenated fat and butter on CVD risk factors: remnant-like particles, glucose and insulin, blood pressure and C-reactive protein." Atherosclerosis. 2003 Nov;171(1):97-107.

Lichtenstein AH, Ausman LM, Jalbert SM, Schaefer EJ. "Effects of different forms of dietary hydrogenated fats on serum lipoprotein cholesterol levels." N Engl J Med. 1999 Jun 24;340(25):1933-40.

Nestel P, Cehun M, Pomeroy S, Abbey M, Weldon G. "Cholesterol-lowering effects of plant sterol esters and non-esterified stanols in margarine, butter and low-fat foods." Eur J Clin Nutr. 2001 Dec;55(12):1084-90.

Tonstad S, Strom EC, Bergei CS, Ose L, Christophersen B. "Serum cholesterol response to replacing butter with a new trans-free margarine in hypercholesterolemic subjects." Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2001 Oct;11(5):320-6.

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