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Butter vs spread

Is butter better? Is it time to ditch the spreads? Dietitian Melissa Meier dips into the latest research and shares some great alternatives.

From traditional butter to dairy-free spreads, and almost everything else in between, it can be tricky to know which products are healthy choices. Add to that the abundance of health claims, and you’ve got a shopping basketful of confusion. But if you follow Healthy Food Guide’s advice on spreads and butters, you can have your toast, and eat it too.

Quality and quantity count

Butter’s back in fashion, with some advocates proclaiming it’s healthier and more natural than margarine and reduced-fat spreads.* But let’s take a closer look. Butter, made simply from churned cream and, often, a touch of salt, is about 50 per cent saturated fat. Despite sensational media reports to the contrary, saturated fat does raise your cholesterol levels. But it raises both your LDL, so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol, and your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. So, what’s the overall effect of all that saturated fat in butter?

That’s where the rest of your diet comes in. Sure, a smear of butter on your morning toast is fine if you’re eating an otherwise healthy diet. It only becomes a problem if you go overboard with butter, or if your diet is already high in other sources of saturated fat, such as processed snacks and fried foods. To help keep your heart healthy, check the sodium content and opt for an unsalted butter.

* The Food Code states a margarine must be at least 80 per cent fat, so spreads containing less fat cannot be labelled as margarine, even though we often call them that.

The margarine debate

Margarine and reduced-fat spreads are made up of oils that have been hardened but are still spreadable. They’re made with vegetable oils such as sunflower, canola and olive oils, so they’re much higher in beneficial mono-and polyunsaturated fats than butter. These healthier fats lift good HDL cholesterol and are cardio-protective. Plus, they’re much lower in saturated fat than butter.

The confusion surrounding margarine has come about due to the trans-fats that were once generated by margarine’s original hardening process. Trans fats are a double-whammy: they raise bad LDL cholesterol and lower good HDL cholesterol. In New Zealand, however, trans fats are not an issue. Manufacturers changed production methods many years ago, so these dangerous fats are now virtually non-existent.

However, an olive-oil spread with 16-18 per cent olive oil is just not as health-giving as good-quality extra virgin olive oil itself, and margarine enriched with omega-3 does not confer the same benefits as a diet high in fish and seafood.

Are butter blends better?

There are also a range of dairy blends, known as ‘spreadable butter’. Most spreadables are made from butter blended with vegetable oils. They often look and taste like butter, with less saturated fat. And they’re easier to spread straight from the fridge.

What about plant-sterol spreads?

Expensive cholesterol-lowering spreads line the shelves, but do they actually work? These products contain plant sterols that block your body’s ability to absorb cholesterol, but you have to consistently eat around two tablespoons of plant sterol spread every day to benefit your cholesterol levels. Use these spreads to replace another kind of fat, rather than adding them as additional fat to the diet.

Heart health isn’t just about spreads. Butter and margarine aren’t your only choices. You can also look after your heart in a delicious way by eating healthy fats from fish and nuts, or fibre from oats and whole grains.

Smart spread swaps

Dip into these nutritious and delicious options:

Rich in heart-healthy fats, fibre and vitamins

HFG tip
Top grainy toast with smashed avo and poached eggs

Nut butter
Full of protein and fibre

HFG tip
Spread no-added-salt or sugar peanut butter on crackers or bread and top with sliced banana

Extra virgin olive oil
Powerful antioxidants

HFG tip
Drizzle EVOO over veges and salads for a healthy flavour punch

Article sources and references


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