Nutritional recommendations always seem to be changing. Oneyear we’re advised to switch from butter to margarine. A year later, we learn that margarine is worse for us than butter.
With all the conflicting information, it’s not surprising that many people are often confused.
Margarine and the Trans Fat Bad Rap
Margarines are notoriously high in trans fats. Onceit was discovered that trans fats are as bad for youas saturated fats (if not worse), margarine got a badrap. Manufacturers responded to these concerns bydeveloping trans fat free margarines, but they had toreplace this emulsifying ingredient with a long list ofother ingredients.
But are these ingredients safe? Is butter still thebetter alternative?
The problem is that the body treats trans fat as if itwere a saturated fat. Trans fats have adverse actionson lipid profiles because they raise LDL (“bad”)cholesterol and decrease HDL (“good”) cholesterol.A study published in the Journal of Nutrition alsofound that trans fats negatively affect plasmamarkers of inflammation and reduce endothelialfunction, effects that are associated with an increasedcardiovascular disease risk.
This is particularly important for people withdiabetes. Since they already have an elevated riskof cardiovascular disease, diabetics need to takeprecautions to ensure that all controllable aspects ofhealth are practiced.
There is no recommended intake for trans fats; however, there is no requirement for trans fats in the diet, either, and it is suggested that our intake of trans fats be as low as possible.
Butter or Margarine?
Butter is a more natural product than margarine, composed of onlyone or two ingredients (cream and sometimes salt). Trans fat freemargarines may have little or no hydrogenated oils, but they docontain many natural and artificial ingredients for flavoring and coloring(see below). If a very small amount of margarine or butter is used, thereshould be no concern. However, people should evaluate why they areusing margarine and if there may be a healthier substitute, such as naturalpeanut butter, when they want to use a spread on a piece of bread.
For cooking, olive oil or canola oil may be better choices than margarineor butter because they contain very little saturated fat, no trans fats, and they offer some essential fatty acids, too.
The Always-Golden Rule—Portion Control
The moral of the story is that trans fat free margarines and butterare safe when consumed in small amounts. While there are morehealthful alternatives for a spread like natural peanut butter, or oliveor canola oils for cooking, certain foods require the use of butter ormargarine (for example, many baked goods). Therefore, it is bestto use only trans fat free products, limiting your intake of them andusing them only when necessary.
What Are Trans Fats?
Trans fats are a type of fat that are found naturally in somefoods, such as dairy products and animal products, butthey are most commonly added artificially to a variety ofcommercial products. Manufactured trans fats are basicallyvegetable fats that have been changed chemically by aprocess known as hydrogenation.
The process of hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation takesplace when food manufacturers artificially add hydrogen tounsaturated fats to provide greater stability and, ultimately,longer shelf life; hydrogenation makes liquid fats solidify atroom temperature.
The advantage is that the hydrogenated fat generally hasa longer shelf life, or, when added to a product such ascrackers, the trans fat gives them a crisper texture.
Stick, soft spread or spray—what’s the best type of trans fat free margarine?
Trans fat free tub and squeeze margarines and spreads are likely to be lower in overall fat, saturated fats and trans fatty acidsthan are stick margarines or butter.
Stick margarines usually contain more trans fats to maintainstability—you should avoid these like the plague.
The benefit of trans fat free sprays, like Olivio’snew Buttery Spray formula, is that you use much less than a spreadto provide the same flavor, so you’ll save even more fat and calories than if you used a spread.
Of course, spray margarines do not work for baking, for which youshould use a soft-spread margarine that comes in a tub.
Ingredients Commonly Added to Trans Fat Free Margarines
Mono- and diglycerides
These are fats that act as emulsifiers and stabilizersin margarines but that comprise only a very smallpercentage of the overall product (typically less than0.5 percent).
This product is derived from the soybean itself andappears to be 100 percent safe for consumption. It istypically included in both organic and no-organicmargarines.
Potassium sorbate is included in many nonorganicproducts as a preservative to prevent fungi andmolds. There are no scientific studies suggesting itsuse is unhealthy, particularly in the very low dosesused in manufacturing margarines.
Beta carotene, found in carrots and other orangevegetables, is used to impart a yellow color tomargarines and butter sprays. Beta carotene isthe plant source of vitamin A and is commonlyconsumed in the diet. There are no safety concernsabout its use in these products.
Sterols and stanols
Sterols and stanols are essential components ofplant cell membranes. However, although eatenregularly in the diet, the doses consumed throughplant foods are much lower than those required forhealth benefits. Plant sterols and stanols have beenshown to lower cholesterol levels and reduce therisk of heart disease; therefore, many companieshave been fortifying foods, such as margarine, withadditional sterols and stanols. In fact, the FDA hasapproved the following health claim for plant sterolsand stanols:
“Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol thatinclude at least 1.3 grams of plant sterol esters or3.4 grams of plant stanol esters, consumed in 2meals with other foods, may reduce the risk of heartdisease.”
Some newer margarines such as Benecol and TakeControl contain sterols and stanols. Studies usingup to 25 grams of sterols and stanols have been welltolerated in humans, so the low doses recommendedare not of concern with regard to safety.
Trans Fat Free Margarines
- Brummel and Brown
- Fleischmann’s Original, Unsalted, Light and Made With Olive Oil
- Olivio Premium Spread
- Smart Balance
- Smart Beat
- Take Control