The use of butter can be traced as far back as 2000 BC. What could be a more humble and delicious meal than bread and butter? In contrast margarine was invented as a substitute for butter by a Frenchman in 1870, although only became widely popular during and after the war years.
Today, margarine sales far outweigh butter in most Western Countries, largely due to the perceived health benefits. But can a modern manufactured product, which goes against the nutrition purist’s idea of eating food as close to nature, really be healthier than the fat made from churning wholesome cow’s milk?
As a fairly passionate believer in eating ‘real’ foods as much as possible, I have to confess to struggling with the idea that we can manufacture something that is better for us than a relatively simple food that has been made and consumed by native communities for thousands of years. Although I’ll give you the facts and you can make up your own mind.
Unless you’ve been hiding under your pillow, you will no doubt have read some of the recent sensational media reports stating that scientists got it all wrong and saturated fats are not the bad guys. Indeed butter was the hero on the cover of Time magazine a couple of months ago. I have no doubt that in light of all this we will see butter sales on the rise again. But should we really go back to eating packs of butter?
Saturated fat does indeed raise our cholesterol levels, so this information is not wrong. It also raises LDL, or so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol. However it also raises HDL, or so-called ‘good’ cholesterol, and so the question is what is the overall effect? The other issue is that the size of these cholesterol-containing particles matters. The latest research is showing that big fluffy LDL particles are not a risk factor; rather it is small dense LDL that seems to be problematic. However despite this being used as an argument in defense of saturated fat, the fact is not enough is known about how diet and lifestyle factors influence LDL particle size.
The research that prompted the questioning of saturated fat in foods like butter came from the publication of major meta-analysis, where the data from many different studies are pulled together, showed no association between saturated fat intake and risk of heart disease. They also showed that replacing saturated fats with refined carbohydrates – just think products high in white flour and added sugar – is just as bad for us, and probably worse. But that’s not the same as saying saturated fats are good for us. So I don’t quite see how this is license to suddenly see high saturated fat foods as superfoods we should be eating.
Butter is a completely different food with different effects on our bodies than a cheeseburger – yet they are both foods high in saturated fat. On the pro side for butter, it's am excellent source of vitamin A and has significant, but very small, amounts of vitamins D and E. Margarines are fortified with these nutrients instead.
Let’s turn back to margarine. Trans fats are no longer an issue. Manufacturers quickly responded to the information on trans fats and changed production methods to remove them. Margarines are also high in healthy mono and poly-unsaturated fats, which have the ability to lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. In fact, a US study of 46 families published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that substituting margarine for butter successfully lowered blood cholesterol levels.
Plant sterol margarines take this a step further. Plant sterols ‘bind’ cholesterol in the gut (from both food and cholesterol excreted in bile acids as part of the digestive process) preventing it from being reabsorbed. Studies have shown that these margarines can be extremely effective in lowering blood cholesterol. There is no doubt that if you have pre-existing high cholesterol levels, using a plant sterol margarine can help you, and if this reduces the need for cholesterol-lowering drugs, this has to be a good thing. The only catch is that it is more expensive, and you have to make sure you use enough of it – a fairly generous spread on three to four slices of bread. Other margarines have omega 3 fats from fish added and since most people are not consuming nearly enough of these anti-inflammatory fats this can potentially be of benefit. But of course you could just eat fish and seafood more regularly, or take a fish oil supplement.
Our official dietary guidelines are in favour of trans fat free margarines, high in unsaturated fats. However an olive oil spread is just not the same as good quality extra virgin olive oil, and margarine enriched with omega 3 is not the same as a diet high in fish and seafood. I believe we have to start looking at foods more holistically and not judge them on the basis of the type of fat alone. If you love butter my advice is just don’t have too much of it! Enjoy a little on your bread and occasionally in cooking, but most of the time there are far healthier alternatives to use.
So really I suggest neither! Brush or dip your bread in extra virgin olive oil, use a nut spread on toast, use mashed avocado or hummus in sandwiches and cook with extra virgin olive oil or other healthy fats. These foods all have additional health benefits and quite frankly I reckon they taste infinitely better too!
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