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Butter vs margarine: which is healthier?

We all know what we prefer, but is one healthier than the other? We decided to find out.

One small thing: Replace foods high in saturated fat (butter, hard margarine and coconut oil) with foods high in monounsaturated fats (olive oil, canola oil, avocado, nuts, peanut butter and seeds).

Healthy choices start with being informed. The debate around butter and margarine is largely around fat content, so it's important to know which fats each product contains and how these can affect our health.

Butter or margarine?

Butter is naturally high in saturated fat and trans fats, which can increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Although margarine is made from vegetable oil, it may also contain trans and saturated fats due to processing. So if you enjoy the taste of butter and you don't have high cholesterol, you can use butter – in moderation.

Remember that butter spreads contain as much fat as butter and may even contain extra trans fats too.

Top tip: Whether you choose butter or margarine, spread it thin – a scraping that allows you to see the cracker or slice of bread through the spread.

Brick or soft tub margarine?

Different blends of vegetable oils are used for different margarines. Brick margarines contain more saturated fat than soft margarines, because harder vegetable oils are used to ensure they maintain their shape. When vegetable oil is turned into a solid fat, the hydrogenation process changes the fat structure. The problem is that partial hydrogenation produces trans fats. Trans and saturated fats increase your risk of heart disease by increasing LDL (bad) cholesterol, while trans fats also lower HDL (good) cholesterol.

Top tip: Always read the nutritional information on packaging because soft margarines can be trans-fat free. A product with less than 0.1g per 100g of trans fat is a good option.

Do all brands of soft tub margarine deliver the same health benefits?

Some soft margarines have lower fat levels than others. Opt for "light" versions that contain about 35g total fat per 100g, as opposed to "medium-fat" spreads (about 50g per 100g) or "regular" margarines (about 80g per 100g).

Top tip: Soft "light" margarines don't tend to work for baking because of their high-water content.

What about margarines that contain added olive oil or canola oil? As these are often "medium" or "regular" soft tub margarines, they could still contain more fat than a "light" margarine. In addition, although these margarines have added olive or canola oil, they aren't necessarily a good source of monounsaturated fats.

Top tip: Wherever possible use olive oil, canola oil and even avocado or nut oils in cooking and baking.

Good fats and bad fats

All types of dietary fat used to have a bad reputation but that has changed. Now we know that the effects of different fats on our health vary – in fact, some fats have shown to have positive health benefits.

The good fats to include:

  • Monounsaturated fats lower the bad LDL levels. Sources include olive and canola oils, nuts and avocados.
  • Omega-3 fats, a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid, may offer health benefits, such as promoting normal functions of the brain and nervous system, lowering cholesterol levels, supporting heart health and reducing inflammation in the body.
  • Polyunsaturated fats are found in sunflower and corn oils, soft tub margarines and oily fish
  • Although they lower LDL cholesterol, in excess they may lower HDL (good) cholesterol too.

The bad fats to avoid:

  • Saturated fats increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. They're found in hard fats, such as butter, brick margarines, processed meats including sausage, boerewors and salami, fatty red meat, chicken skin and coconut oil.
  • Trans fats are created during food processing. They can increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol levels, which are both risk factors for heart disease.

If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit adsa.org.za. To get in touch with us, email healthhotline@pnp.co.za.