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Butter or Margarine - which is better?

There is so much conflicting media about whether it is better to eat butter or margarine or even to decipher which is which, with the multitude of "spreads" on the supermarket fridge shelf. When margarine was invented it was seen as the revolutionary health product with a big HealthyHeart tick to promote it but recent research now shows otherwise.  

Margarine is made by passing hydrogen gas through liquid oils in the presence of a metal catalyst of nickel and aluminum to make a semi-solid state to which yellow colouring is added to make it look like butter. Many margarines claim they are rich in Omega 3 oils, essential fatty acids, made from healthy olive oil but even if they start with these products, the hydrogenation process destroys these beneficial fatty acids, converting them into trans fats. The finished product is low in Omega 3 oils, high in trans fats. Trans fats are synthetic fats that are fairly new to our food chain due to modern processing methods so we are only seeing the effects on our health in recent years. They cannot be broken down and used by the body but instead cause free radical damage to our cells. Trans fats make platelets sticky, increasing the likelihood of a clot in a small blood vessel causing strokes, heart attacks or circulatory occlusion. They can also increase blood cholesterol levels by up to 15% and blood fat levels up to 47%. Unfortunately, the HealthyHeart criteria is simplistically based upon the out-dated research of saturated fat content without any measurement of trans fats, creating enormous misleading confusion for the public. Also in Australia food companies are not required to list the amount of trans fats on the nutrition label so we have no way of knowing how much trans fat we are eating. There is no upper safety limit for the recommended daily intake of trans fat, simply that “it should be as low as possible”. However, New York City Council has been very proactive, passing laws a couple of years ago to limit the maximum amount of trans fats in all foods cooked and sold in NY city. To demonstrate this imminent health concern, adding 1 steak to your diet everyday, you increase your saturated fat by 5%, which increases your risk of a heart attack by 17%. By adding one teaspoon of margarine to what you normally eat each day, you increase your trans fats by 2%, but your risk of a heart attack increases by a shocking 93%.

Butter has received an enormous amount of flack in the past 30 years since margarine was invented but the tide has changed in recent times as more research is done into different type of fats and their function and effects in the body. Butter
 is mainly saturated fat, 9% steric acid, 19% oleic acid, 38% palmitic acid and low in Omega 3 oils. In excess these acids can interfere with the beneficial anti-inflammatory effect of omega 3 oils. There was also concern about the cholesterol content of butter as 100gm of butter contains about 250mg of cholesterol. However, recent research shows that only 20% of cholesterol comes from a diet of high cholesterol foods, while the other 80% of cholesterol is made in your body to carry around sugars and poor quality fats, such as trans fats, from processed foods. The good thing about butter is it is easily digested being a natural product, helps improve some strains of good bacteria in your gut for digestion producing butyric acid and being a solid at room temperature, it does not oxidise or go rancid easily with high temperatures, causing damaging free radicals in the body cells when eaten. Therefore it can be used in frying and other high heat applications. Of course, it needs to be eaten in moderation (1tsp/day) and yes, it is difficult to spread unless it is at room temperature or spread on hot toast! You can blend your butter with olive oil at home to make your own spreadable butter or try alternatives like mashed avocado, humus, drizzled olive oil, tahini, nut spreads.

If there is one thing you do for your health, do not consume margarine or any other "olive oil spread". Despite millions of dollars of marketing to convince us otherwise, the fact remains that butter is a natural product made from cow's milk, while margarine does not exist in nature and has to be made in a laboratory. Would you rather eat synthetic chemicals or food?

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