Butter is a spread made from milk that is high in both saturated fat and cholesterol. Margarine is made from unsaturated vegetable oil and contains trans fats.
Deciding whether to use butter or margarine can be a hard decision. Is one topping healthier than the other? What about the ones called cholesterol-lowering spreads? Margarine is made from unsaturated vegetable oil. Butter is high in both saturated fat and cholesterol. Too much saturated fat can increase the risk for heart disease. It raises both the total and low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol in the blood. LDL is known as the bad carrier for cholesterol. LDL cholesterol in this clogs arteries and blood vessels. This increases the risk for heart disease.
Margarine does not contain cholesterol or saturated fat. However, margarine does contain trans fats. Trans fats are created when liquid oils are partially hydrogenated to make them more solid. Trans fats can raise LDL cholesterol levels and may also lower HDL cholesterol in the blood. They tend to raise total blood cholesterol levels but not as much as more saturated fatty acids. The relationship of trans fats to cancer risk is not clear. Some research has suggested that trans fats might increase the risk of breast cancer. Other equally good studies have not confirmed this observation. The best choice is to reduce the intake of all solid fats, including trans fats.
Tub and squeeze-bottle margarines are more liquid. In general, they have fewer trans fats than stick margarines. The American Heart Association recommends the use of margarine as a substitute for butter. Choose soft margarines, which are either liquid or tub varieties, over harder, stick forms. Shop for margarine with no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon and with liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient.
The amount of saturated fat and trans fats in a food must be listed on food labels. If the ingredients list includes partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, the food contains trans fats.
Another alternative to butter is spreads enriched with plant sterols or stanols. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, also called NHLBI, recommends consumption of 2 grams of plant sterols or stanols a day. Eating these may reduce the risk of heart disease when used as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Plant sterols or stanols work by helping to block absorption of cholesterol from the digestive tract. Sterols or stanols are found in enriched food products, such as cholesterol-lowering regular and light spreads. Regular vegetable oil spreads containing plant stanol esters can be used in cooking and baking as a one-for-one substitution for other cooking fats and oils. Light spreads containing this ingredient are designed for spreading only.
According to the NHLBI, a heart-healthy diet has no more that 25% to 35% of total daily calories from fat. Up to 20% of total daily calories should be monounsaturated fat and up to 10% should be polyunsaturated fat. The remaining 7% can come from saturated fat. Limiting total and saturated fat in the diet will help to reduce the amount of trans fats. Moderate amounts of either butter or margarine can be part of a healthy diet. A person's whole diet and general health must be considered in the choice.