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Which is healthier, butter or margarine?

By Nicci Micco, July 12, 2011 - 11:03am

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A friend recently asked me which is a healthier choice: whipped butter or a buttery spread. Having a master’s degree in nutrition, I get a lot of nutrition questions, but I hadn’t been asked this one before.

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Without looking at the labels, I really couldn’t give her a good answer, so I hit the supermarket to compare products. I found several shelves stocked with butter and the various spreads you can use in its place. I decided to go all out and basically analyze the whole category. So if you’re wondering how to make sense of so many spreads, here’s help:

Butter: Basically, no matter what brand you pick, butter has the following nutritional profile per tablespoon: 100 calories, 11 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat. (The grades, which range from AA to B, with AA being the best, have to do with quality—flavor, color, texture, etc.) It’s a steep calorie count for sure, but heart-healthy oils, such as olive and canola, pack just as many calories (or more); what makes butter “bad” for your heart is its high level of saturated fat—which, eaten in excess, can boost blood cholesterol levels.
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Whipped butter: To produce a fluffier, lighter product (in feel and calories/fat!), manufacturers whip air into regular butter. Generally, a tablespoon of whipped butter delivers 70 calories, 7 grams of fat, 5 grams of saturated fat. Definitely a calorie savings if you’re trying to shed pounds—and better for your heart than regular butter, to boot.
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“Spreadable” butters: Typically, these butters add just a little bit of oil (often canola), which makes them easier to spread. Their nutritional profiles are very similar to that of regular butter.

Margarine and other spreads: You’ll find all sorts of oil-based spreads falling into this category. “Margarine” is a product that has 80 percent fat, like butter. Many (but not all) other “soft spreads” or “tub” buttery products have less total fat as well as less saturated fat and/or calories. Often, these products tend to sport long lists of ingredients. Most of these ingredients (e.g., maltodextrin, mono or diglycerides) are harmless and help to keep the product stable. One thing you should scan for are the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated." If the ingredient list includes one of these, then the product is not really trans-fat free (The FDA allows foods with less than 0.5 gram to be rounded down to 0.)

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Stanol- or sterol-containing spreads: These spreads have patented formulas so it’s hard to tell exactly what’s in them beyond a blend of oils plus stanols or sterols, plant-based compounds that have been shown to help reduce blood cholesterol. (These compounds are similar in structure to cholesterol and so they compete with it for absorption in the body.) Generally the “regular” versions of these spreads have about 70-80 calories, 8 grams of fat and about 2.5 grams of saturated fat. “Light” versions have a little less. As with all spreads, remember to scan the ingredient list for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils.

So back to my friend’s question—what to buy, whipped butter or a spread? My answer: If you’re comparing it to traditional butter, whipped butter will definitely save you calories, fat and saturated fat. A spread might or might not and could also contain trans fats. If a spread is your preference, you definitely need to read labels!


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TAGS: Nicci Micco, Health Blog, Good choices, Nutrition, Wellness

Nicci Micco
Nicci Micco is co-author of EatingWell 500-Calorie Dinners. She has a master's degree in nutrition and food sciences, with a focus in weight management.

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