Butter or margarine?

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Butter or margarine?

I truly believe in the saying ‘each to their own’. What works for me, may or may not work for you. However, we are often subjected to the media pushing their exaggerated and usually unsubstantiated
claims. As a Health Professional and Dietitian, I’d like to put the emotional arguments aside and interpret the evidence on this candid debate. So here goes.

Media claims on butter – ‘it’s natural’, ‘it’s what my ancestors ate’. Claims on margarine – ‘it’s one molecule away from plastic’, ‘it’s full of chemicals’, ‘it’s artificial’. These sorts of claims brandished in our news feeds have resulted in an increase in butter consumption in New Zealand. The worst part is that the claims, particularly for margarine, are completely out of context and often ridiculous. I think the crux of the issue is that we get a lot of American media yet our food supply and the way we do things is vastly different to America!

Firstly, let’s deal with a particularly ‘chemically’ sounding word that has been thrown around a lot. Hydrogenation. Hydrogenation means to ‘treat with hydrogen’ and is a process where-by liquid oils are turned into solid or semi solid fats. The word ‘hydrogenation’ leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouths (excuse the pun), as years ago, sometimes the plant oils used to make margarines were partially rather than fully or completely hydrogenated as they are now. This process of partial hydrogenation produced those evil little ‘trans fats’ that we KNOW contribute to heart disease and high cholesterol. These days, oils in NZ are fully hydrogenated which removes almost all trans-fats (most spreads contain less than 1% trans-fats). In the USA the trans-fat content of margarines vary widely, which seems to be where most of the bad press about margarines comes from. In New Zealand, we get most of our trans-fats from highly processed foods, such as chicken nuggets and commercially produced baked goods, not from margarines or oils.

One of the most startling claims made is that ‘margarine is one molecule away from plastic’. In truth, margarine shares no chemical similarities with plastic.  Of course, if artificial colours in margarine are your bug bear – guess what, food manufacturers put them in butter too.

The New Zealand heart foundation still stands by its claim that ‘the link between a higher intake of saturated fats, elevated blood cholesterol and heart disease is well established’. In other words, it is better for our heart to replace saturated fats (those from animals) with unsaturated fats (those from fish and plants). This means, it is healthier to use oil based spreads (i.e. canola, olive oil, rice bran) and plant oils instead of butter or lard. The key here, like with most nutritional messages, is to choose the healthier alternatives ‘most of the time’. A small amount of butter from time to time is not going to kill you. In saying that, if you love butter, and cheese and full fat dairy products and meat products (processed or not) – consider the potential for all of those ‘animal fats’ or saturated fats to add up – and perhaps consider swapping some of these out for plant based or lower fat alternatives.

In conclusion, Margarine is better for you, but a bit of butter isn’t such a bad thing.

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