The growing number of reality television shows that highlight home cooked meals as well as the use of copious amounts of butter and oil again bring up the question, “should we be using butter or margarine?” Indeed it is one of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to nutrition and as is the case with all areas of nutrition, the answer is not so simple.
If we take a step back and consider the role of any type of added fat in the diet, it is important to remember that the average adult will require just 40-60g of fat in total each day. If we then consider that a serve of nuts, some oil in cooking as well as some oily fish will provide at least 2/3 of this amount we are really just considering where we need to get just 10-15g of total fat, or 2-3 teaspoons each day. For those of you who are now considering how much butter or margarine you smear on your toast, or how much is added to the average recipe featured on television cooking shows, yes, you probably do need to cut back as we really do not need a lot of added fat in general.
So, of these 2-3 teaspoons which is best? Butter, while the spread of choice because of its more “natural” image is largely a saturated fat. A teaspoon of butter will give you almost 3g of saturated fat, the type of fat which we need to keep as low as possible in our diet as it is the type of fat most likely to store and clog our arteries. A teaspoon of margarine on the other hand; a formulated blend of different types of oils depending on the one you choose , will give <1g of saturated fat per serve.
The story then becomes a little more complicated when you then consider that many of the varieties of both butter and margarine are now blends of different oils, as food companies attempt to get rid of as much bad fat from both the butter and margarines they sell, while bumping up the good fats from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources. Light and extra light varieties of both butter and margarine mean that the total amounts of fat received from these sources can be as low as 2g of total fat per serve, which means that either used in moderation of just 1-2 serves each day can be incorporated into any nutritionally balanced eating plan.
Cholesterol lowering margarines offer another selling point to consumers, especially given there are also light varieties of such margarines which contain concentrated amounts of plant sterols which, when consumed in high enough volumes can significantly reduce blood cholesterol. What also needs to be considered though is that these spreads are very expensive, need to be used in the right amounts (3-4 serves a day) and the cholesterol lowering benefits are perhaps not as powerful as weight loss itself. Such formulated foods then suit individuals who do not need to lose weight, who eat a low fat diet in general and who still have elevated cholesterol levels.
So, have I answered the question about which is preferable? As a nutritionist, my focus is developing entire diet plans that tick a number of nutritional boxes. Dietary modeling will indicate that of all the types of fat in the average person’s diet, it is the long chain polyunsaturated fats that tend to be lacking in the diet. For this reason, when choosing spreads I generally suggest an extra light variety that offers a decent serve of polyunsaturated fat. As is the case with any added fat though, I would much prefer my clients get the fat in their diets from nuts, seeds, oily fish and good quality oil which means that there is really very little place for spreads in the diet in general.