People are incredibly health-conscious these days, and one of the hottest areas of debate where people tend to focus is their choice of bread spread. We’ve heard the debates rage for years, but which really is the healthier choice? Butter, which has been used throughout the ages, or margarine, which is a relative newcomer to the market?
Let’s delve into the pros and cons of each of these products and assess the effect that they have on our health and well-being.
Saturated vs Unsaturated Fats
Butter contains saturated fatty acids.
As you can see above, there are no double bonds between any two carbon atoms. Now, let’s take a closer look at the fatty acids in the plant oils from which margarine is made.
In this bread spread, there is a double bond between two carbon atoms, meaning that the fat is unsaturated (monounsaturated, in this case). Why is this important? Well, it is believed that saturated fatty acids are associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, due to their tendency to deposit themselves in coronary arteries, thereby leading to the blockage of those arteries. Therefore, there has been a common assumption that eating foods with a higher content of unsaturated fat puts people at a lower risk for heart disease as compared to eating foods with saturated fat, such as butter.
Given that fact, margarine must be the healthier choice due to its unsaturated fat content, right? Not so fast…
Margarine may have unsaturated fatty acids, but in the process of converting the plant oil into something that more closely resembles butter, margarine goes through a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation involves adding hydrogen across the double bonds, giving the oil more viscosity and a more desirable consistency. The problem is, during this process of hydrogenation, high temperatures are applied to the oil, which cause the fatty acids to change their configuration. More specifically, they switch from cis fats to trans fats.
Why does this matter? The simplest answer is because research has indicated that trans fat is bad for you. It is, in fact, even worse than saturated fat. Trans fat can wreak havoc on the way your body metabolizes the molecule and results in an increase in bad cholesterol (LDL) and a decrease in good cholesterol (HDL). This, in turn, results in an increased risk of suffering from atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and developing coronary heart disease.
So… Avoid Margarine? Avoid Butter? Avoid Both??
The thing is, butter is a natural product made almost exclusively from milk and contains some great nutrients that are needed by our bodies, including vitamin A and E. Margarine, on the other hand, is made from a plethora of ingredients, including one or more plant oils, water, salt, milk ingredients, and many synthetic chemicals.
Nowadays, however, as margarine manufacturers are becoming more aware of the drawbacks of trans fat, they use alternative means of improving the consistency of margarine (and avoiding hydrogenation), and the resulting product is said to be trans fat-free. In addition, these margarine products are low in saturated fats and caloric content.
The “butter vs margarine” debate will likely continue to rage in kitchens and supermarkets around the world, and there is no end in sight. There are pros and cons to both. The best thing to do, personally, is to take a careful look at the products around you and make an informed choice based on your health, your frequency of use, and the availability of your favorite bread spread.