Making an informed choice about butter, margarine

The debate of butter versus margarine becomes even more complicated: salt-free margarine, light margarine, margarine with added…

What should you be spreading on your toast? The debate of butter versus margarine becomes even more complicated: salt-free margarine, light margarine, margarine with added plant sterols, coconut oil? Why does this continue to be a dilemma? The answer is simple: we all secretly want to be eating butter. It makes almost anything taste delicious. But undermining the sheer joy of slathering a thick layer onto almost any food, is a tiny paranoid voice in our head, “heart attack!”

Heart disease and stroke continue to be leading causes of death in Canada. The main problem with butter (and coconut oil) is it is high in saturated fat. A recent Cochrane review of fifteen randomized controlled trials, confirmed that reducing intake of saturated fat reduces the risk of cardiovascular events, such as non-fatal heart attacks, angina, stroke, heart failure, peripheral vascular events and atrial fibrillation, although their role in mortality was unclear. And then there are trans fats. A large study in Canada found that trans fat intakes are associated with a 34 per cent increase in all-cause mortality, and a 21 per cent increase in total cardiovascular disease. Trans fats are found in margarines that have been made by hydrogenating oil, an industrial process that makes liquid oil into a solid fat. Most margarines on the grocery shelves these days are non-hydrogenated, but the former are still found in commercially made products because they are inexpensive.

So the short answer is this: non-hydrogenated margarines are thought to be better for your health than butter. Canadians are encouraged to cut back on saturated and trans fat.

Here are some heart-healthy tips:

• Reduce the main sources of trans fats: commercial cakes, cookies and pastries; shortening and partially hydrogenated margarines; chips, crackers; commercially prepared popcorn and deep-fried foods.

• Adding plant sterols to margarine (such as Becel proactive) has been shown in some studies to improve cholesterol levels, but is expensive.

• If you love butter, consider cutting back on other sources of saturated fat instead (red meat, cheese, high-fat dairy).

• If you are still a skeptic of margarine, try spreading nut butters or avocados on toast. My favourite is almond butter with either banana or apricot jam and sprinkle of cinnamon.


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