Is butter or margarine healthier? This question is one that comes up time and time again in nutrition. Many people believe because butter is natural, it has to be better than margarine. A good way to look at it is to look at the big picture of fat in our diet.
Fat is a necessary nutrient. Fat helps us absorb the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and provide essential fatty acids. However, we only need a small amount of fat in our diet – around 40-60g of fat a day for the average person. If you think about a healthy diet, you might include fats like a handful of nuts for a snack, oily fish once or twice a week as a meal or avocado in a sandwich. All these fats contribute to our daily intake, meaning that there isn’t really a large amount of fat left in a daily intake to be used for margarine or butter. Did you know that in New Zealand research has shown, around 22% of fat in our diets comes from butter and margarine? This number needs to come down.
What to spread?
When it comes to shopping for spreads, there is a multitude on the market – butter/oil blends, reduced salt spreads, low fat spreads, cholesterol lowering spreads. So what to use? Because butter is a source of saturated fat, I don’t recommend it as an every day spread. Saturated fat increases cholesterol levels, and high cholesterol is related to heart disease. One teaspoon of butter provides nearly 3g of saturated fat, whereas a teaspoon of reduced fat margarine spread (depending on what you buy) will provide less than 1g of saturated fat per teaspoon. I’d recommend using a spread that is reduced fat, and has a high percentage of polyunsaturated fats. However, of course, it is personal preference, and if you do choose butter, use only a small amount, and make sure your diet is overall low in saturated fats.
If you do use spreads, remember not to use if if using avocado or peanut butter – these are already fat sources and you don’t need another. When making salad sandwiches, avoid using a spread – ingredients like chutney, avocado or low fat salad dressing add moisture and flavour.
Margarines – clearing up controversy:
What about the additives in margarine? There is nothing in margarine that hasn’t been classified as safe to eat by the Food Safety Authority, so you can rest easy.
One ingredient in margarine that has caused some controversy is palm oil. Palm oil is used in small amounts in a large number of margarine brands to help harden them. Palm oil production has contributed to deforestation and the destruction of environments of animals, and in particular the orangutang and tigers in Borneo and Sumatra. It’s hard to identify what spreads contain palm oil because it is almost always listed as “vegetable oils”. Manufacturers don’t need to be specific as to the source of the fat. One spread that is palm oil free is Alfa One Rice Bran Oil Spread.
Some manufactures of spreads also aim to source their palm oil from sustainable plantations, so if you are concerned, give the manufacturer a call to find out where they source their palm oil from.
- If you want to use a margarine spread, chose a reduced fat version high in polyunsaturated fats.
- If you are going to choose butter, use as little as possible, and make sure your diet is low in saturated fats
- Use it as little as possible, stick other fat sources in your diet – nuts, oily fish, avocado.