Is Margarine or Butter the Better Spread for Low Cholesterol?

Most margarines are not any healthier than butter after all

Butter slices. Credit: David Herrmann

If you're watching your cholesterol levels and have dutifully switched from butter to margarine, you may have heard the rumors about it being potentially even worse for heart health. What gives? Before you throw your hands up in frustration, here is what research has to say about the healthiest spread for your dinner roll. But first, a little history on the butter-vs.-margarine debate.

Butter Vs. Margarine

Butter, long-adored in America for the rich savory flavor it adds to almost any dish, was shown to be associated with an increased risk of heart disease due to its saturated fat content.

That's when margarine was developed as a substitute. Made from plant-based oils such as canola, palm fruit, and soybean, margarine was touted as the healthier alternative spread by nutritionists and researchers—that is, until its dangers emerged. While it is lower in saturated fat and contains no cholesterol, most margarine has high levels of trans fats, which raise LDL or "bad" cholesterol and lower HDL or "good" cholesterol. 

Trans Fat in Margarine vs. Saturated Fat in Butter

The unsaturated fats in most margarine undergo a process called hydrogenation, which creates harmful trans fats. Trans fat raises LDL or "bad" cholesterol even more than saturated fat does. The trans-fatty acids are what gives margarine its solid consistency at room temperature. Stick margarines, the hardest kind, contain the most trans fats—and they are still widely sold today despite what we know about their harm.

 

Results from clinical studies show consuming these man-made trans fats is associated with a 28 percent increased risk of death from heart disease and a 34 percent increased risk of death overall.

Not All Margarine Is Created Equal

Softer and liquid margarine products generally contain less trans fat than stick options, are low in saturated fat, and high in unsaturated fat.

You can generally determine how much trans-fats each form of margarine has by its softness. Those that are more solid at room temperature contain more trans-fats than those that come in a tub, which are generally softer. Regardless, softer options still contain some trans fats. Check the label—if partially hydrogenated oil is listed, it's best to avoid. 

Some newer options such as Benecol and Smart Balance HeartRight, however, are enriched with plant sterols, which block the absorption of cholesterol and can help lower LDL levels. These are good choices if you're trying to lower your LDL. 

Check your food labels to make an informed decision.

Should You Switch Back to Butter, Then? 

Butter comes in two major forms: stick and spread. It is primarily made up of saturated fat and cholesterol. If you look at the ingredients label on the back of a butter product, one tablespoon, the equivalent of a pat of butter on your corn on the cob, contains almost half the recommended amount of saturated fat and cholesterol each day. Bottom line: It's very easy to enter dangerous territory with butter‚ as you probably know if you've ever drizzled some on a bowl of hot popcorn fresh out of the microwave.

 

One tablespoon of butter contains roughly 30 milligrams of cholesterol and 7 grams of saturated fat; the maximum amount allowed daily is 200 milligrams and 10 milligrams, respectively. Additionally, because both of these types of fats are linked to raising cholesterol and risk of heart disease, butter is recommended to use only sparingly.

Since butter comes from milk, if it's not organic or specifically labeled as free of bovine growth hormone (rGBH), it may contain rGBH. This substance can cause harm to cows and the verdict is still out as to whether it harms humans or not. In addition, butter from grass-fed cows is higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for heart health, making it nutritionally superior to the more widely sold butter from conventionally-raised animals.

If you do want to consume butter occasionally, do your best to get the healthiest sources. 

The Best Options

The most heart-healthy options are neither butter nor margarine, but olive oil, avocado oil, and other vegetable-based spreads. In baked goods, consider substituting applesauce, nut butters, or squash purees for butter. Dip your crusty piece of bread into some olive oil. Use avocado oil as a cooking oil when you are sautéing or roasting vegetables. If you are going to use margarine as a bread spread, look for soft versions that contain plant sterols and no hydrogenated oils. And as for butter, as long as you don't have high cholesterol, you can enjoy it as an indulgence from time to time. 

Sources:

Cleveland Clinic: Trans Fats, Not Saturated Fats Linked to Health Risks (2015)

Harvard Healthbeat. Butter vs. Margarine.

Hebeisen DF1, Hoeflin F, Reusch HP, Junker E, Lauterburg BH. Hebeisen DF1, Hoeflin F, Reusch HP, Junker E, Lauterburg BH. Increased concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids in milk and platelet rich plasma of grass-fed cows. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1993;63(3):229-33.

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