Is Butter or Margarine Healthier?

Photo credit: Bigstockphoto
Photo credit: Bigstockphoto

No one wants to eat a dry piece of toast – but there’s a lot of confusion as to what’s best to put on it. Is butter or margarine healthier – and which should you choose?

Which is Better Butter or Margarine?

Neither choice is ideal. Both contain ingredients that aren’t part of a heart-healthy diet. On the other hand, how many people are willing to give up both?

Margarine or Butter: Is Butter the Better Choice?

Butter has the advantage of being natural – but it also contains cholesterol and saturated fat, which can elevate cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association recommends keeping cholesterol consumption under 200 milligrams a day. A tablespoon of butter has around 32 milligrams of cholesterol.

Another problem with butter is the saturated fat it contains. For most people, this is more problematic than the cholesterol. The average person should get no more than 15 milligrams of saturated fat per day – and a single tablespoon of butter has almost 8 milligrams of this cholesterol-raising fat. No wonder cardiologists don’t own stock in Land O Lakes! Butter is also high in calories – with around 100 calories per tablespoon.

On the plus side, butter is a natural source of CLA, which enhances the immune system and helps to build lean body mass and lower body fat – at least according to some studies. It’s also a good source of vitamin A and monounsaturated fats, which helps to reduce cholesterol levels.

Butter or Margarine: What About Margarine?

Margarine lacks the cholesterol and saturated fat found in butter, but some margarine has something worse – trans-fats. Many margarine manufacturers have reduced trans-fats or even eliminated them from their products, but the amount varies. It’s important to read the label carefully and look for one that doesn’t list partially hydrogenated or partially fractionated oils Remember that zero grams of trans-fat on the label doesn’t mean that it’s trans-fat free. You have to verify this by looking at the fine print.

Trans-fats are worse than saturated fats. Not only do they raise levels of LDL (the bad cholesterol), they lower levels of HDL (the good cholesterol). They also increase triglyceride levels and cause inflammation – both of which elevate the risk of heart attack.

Margarine that contains trans-fat is usually solid at room temperature, so stick- margarines usually contain more trans-fats than soft margarine. A trans-fat free soft margarine isn’t a bad choice overall, but it’s important to choose carefully.

Margarine or Butter: The Bottom Line?

Neither butter nor margarine is perfect. The best choice is either a soft, trans-fat free margarine – or a light or whipped butter. Light or whipped butter usually has half the calories and fat of regular butter and is available at most grocery stores. Light butter has the advantage of being a natural product, while margarine is synthetic or man-made. Either way, it’s best to use these products in moderation – especially if you have risk factors for heart disease.

Cleveland Clinic Miller Family Heart and Vascular Institute. “Butter vs. Margarine”.

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