Butter versus margarine — which is better for you?

Monday, March 19, 2007
We're always being told that natural is best and it would seem that milk from cows is, well, natural. So, what about the butter made from that milk? Shopping shelves are filled with alternatives to butter — such as margarine. It claims to be a healthier alternative, but is it really? We're going to find out once and for all what's better for us — butter or margarine?

To put it to the test, our reporter Dr Andrew Rochford is going to get some of the sentimental favourite (butter) at Maleny Cheese in Queensland. But he's not just going to buy some butter, Andrew gets to help Marcus Bucher make it.

It's simple, you put in some cream and churn — there's 120 litres of cream in Andrew's pot, which will become 60 kilos of butter.

First you get whipped cream, then after another 10 minutes of churning it's a matter of straining out the buttermilk and a quick rinse, then hey presto, butter.

There's a lot of love that goes into making that butter — and a lot of saturated fat — almost 70 percent!

Let's take a look at margarine — they're made of polyunsaturated vegetable oils such as canola and sunflower. In the past, margarines have been demonised for being full of trans fatty acids, which can clog up your arteries. Trans fats are potentially worse than the saturated fats in butter. But margarine manufacturers claim they've not only fixed the problem, but their new margarines containing plant sterols actively reduce cholesterol.

How effective are they? Well, we're about to find out.

The test

Now that Andrew's got a kilo of butter from Maleny Cheese, what is he going to do with it? Andrew: I've enrolled the perfect guinea pig — she eats far too much butter, I know she has a cholesterol problem and she's well and truly over me telling her that she needs to cut back — it's my mother-in-law, Carole. Now Carole you know that I love you, but you do enjoy interfering so now it's my turn. I'm going to interfere — I'm going to take away your butter for three weeks and you're going to eat [cholesterol-lowering] margarine. Are you happy about that? Don't care. So what we're going to do now, we're going to go and get our cholesterol checked as a baseline and we're going to start this diet and we'll go from there. Happy? Don't care.
Carole: I didn't even get a word in!

Carole is what you'd call a butter tragic and Andrew believes she's got the cholesterol to match.

Carole: Andrew, butter is a natural product so therefore it's got to be good for you.
Andrew: That's the whole theory that I'm trying to figure out. But there's all these margarines that say they lower your cholesterol.
Carole: No. Butter's a natural product, margarine's not. Can't possibly work. Sorry.

Now, the danger range for cholesterol is anything above 5.5. Carole's cholesterol is 6.1, which puts her in potential heart attack territory. Andrew came it at 5.1, which is a bit high.

So, will eating butter for the next three weeks put Andrew in the danger zone? And will margarine with plant sterols bring Carole's cholesterol down?

Results

For three weeks Andrew's mother-in-law Carole swapped her beloved butter for margarine while Andrew has been lathering on the butter as thick as he can.

How has Carole been going?

"I hate it. I hate margarine, it's disgusting. It leaves a very sickly feeling," she says.

Over the past three weeks nothing in Andrew or Carole's exercise regime or diet changed, apart from butter and margarine.

Has their cholesterol changed?

Carol's cholesterol results:
Before: 6.1
After: 5.7

That drop from 6.1 to 5.7 makes her a 10 percent lower risk of heart attack, which is a great result.

Andrew's cholesterol results:
Before: 5.1
After: 5.1
Started and finished the same

Maybe because, apart from the butter, Andrew kept up his usual healthy diet.

So will Carole stick with margarine or go with butter?

"Margarine sucks, it's disgusting. I'm going to stick with butter but only once a week," she says.

It's hard saying goodbye, but cardiologist Dr David Colquhoun says it's worth it for your heart's sake.

"In a nutshell, butter is not good for you, we've known that for a long time. Margarine, the right type of margarine, is positively healthy for you," he says.

Conclusion

So choose margarines that don't have trans fats and do have cholesterol lowering plant sterols. The heart foundation has given its tick of approval to 49 of them on the market.

Susan Anderson from the Heart Foundation Tick Program says: "The tick on a food means it's a healthier choice compared to similar foods. We have the products individually tested and if they meet those standards then they get to use the heart foundation's tick of approval."

So, just because butter comes straight from nature doesn't mean it's healthier. The heart foundation has given the tick to margarine's that have removed those trans fatty acids removed. But at the end of the day it all comes down to moderation, whether it's butter or margarine.

Fast facts

  • Being a butter lover often encourages you to eat more bread, but would a switch to olive oil reduce your desire for those extra slices? Researchers at the University of Illinois discovered that olive oil users ate 23 percent less bread than those who smeared on the butter — so if you want to cut down on your bread consumption, olive oil is the way to go.


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