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Margarine or butter?

Margarine or butter?
By Alyssa Rolnick, RD

Margarine or butter?You may think that having a warm pat of butter on a slice of fresh bread or a butter tart with your coffee is a harmless indulgence. What you may not realize is that eating a lot of butter on a regular basis can be harmful to your heart. Butter is made from animal fat, which is high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Eating a diet high in saturated fat can lead to elevated cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Canada’s Food Guide recommends choosing soft margarines that are low in saturated and trans fats and to limit butter, hard margarines, lard and shortening.

The Food Guide recommends margarine because it is made from vegetable oils, such as canola, olive, soybean and safflower, which contain polyunsaturated fats that may help lower your cholesterol levels.

So which margarines are best? And how can you use them in preparing foods?  Here are some tips to help you select a spread among the many varieties available and have your heart saying thank you.

Sticks vs. tubs
Used to be that you could only buy margarines in solid, stick form full of saturated and trans fat. The majority of today’s margarines come in tubs, are soft and spreadable, and are non-hydrogenated, which means they have low levels of saturated and trans fat. Trans fat increases your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowers your good cholesterol (HDL) levels. Check the Nutrition Facts panel for the grams of saturated and trans fats. The Foundation recommends eating margarine that is non-hydrogenated, containing 2 g or less of saturated and trans fat per serving. Use the Heart&Stroke Foundation’s Health Check symbol as a guide when choosing your margarines. Learn how to read the Nutrition Facts table with our interactive tool

Specialty margarines
You may also be aware that there are now specialty margarines, those that contain Omega-3s, less sodium, and now plant sterols. Plant sterols occur naturally in low levels in vegetable oils, nuts, whole grains, vegetables and fruit. Research has shown that a diet high in plant sterols (approximately 2 grams per day) may help to lower cholesterol levels, but only in those who have been diagnosed with high levels of LDL cholesterol. Foods in Canada are now allowed to have 1 g of added plant sterols per serving. If you want to get the optimum cholesterol lowering benefit of added plant sterols, you will also need to follow a healthy diet and a regular physical activity routine. Consult your healthcare provider before commencing a diet that includes daily consumption of foods with added plant sterols, especially if you are currently taking any prescription medications.

A little dab will do
Canada’s Food Guide recommends that we include a small amount (30 to 45 mL or 2 to 3 tbsp) of unsaturated fat per day. This includes oils used for cooking, and in salad dressings, mayonnaise and margarines.

Cooking with margarine
Fat contributes to the texture, moisture and browning properties of foods. Most margarines add flavour to recipes already high in moisture such as stuffing and pasta dishes. Margarine is best suited for baking, cooking and sautéeing. (Exceptions include: Omega 3, light or reduced-fat varieties.) When sautéeing, reduce the amount of fat you use with water, low-sodium broth or an oil-based cooking spray. When baking, replace up to half the amount of fat with plain yogurt, unsweetened applesauce or prune puree. Try Anne Lindsay’s cinnamon coffee cake.

Holidays often call for butter-laden foods. This Thanksgiving, try a butter-free turkey with low-fat stuffing. Use Anne Lindsay’s recipe for roast turkey with apple, sausage, herb stuffing. Or try her food-processor easy-to-make pastry for your pies, which uses a small amount of soft, non-hydrogenated margarine.

Last reviewed: March 2011



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