The dairy aisle has gotten a lot more complicated lately. Once upon a time, there was just butter; but over the last several decades, a variety of spreads have proliferated, and some are healthier for you than others. But what exactly are all these foods, and which is the best for your health?
First up, the old standby: creamy, dairy butter. It’s made from cow’s milk, which is churned until it turns into the thick, yellowish substance that magically melts on a hot slice of toast.
“Butter comes from animal fat, which contains saturated fat,” says Angela Blackstone, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “Saturated fat can increase your LDL — the bad — cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that 6% or less of your total calories come from saturated fats.”
According to the Department of Agriculture, a tablespoon of butter contains:
— Calories: 100.
— Fat: 11.4 grams.
— Saturated fat: 7.19 grams.
— Cholesterol: 30.1 milligrams.
— Carbohydrates: 0 grams.
Some types of butter may also contain salt.
A 2019 study noted that butter made from cows that consume grass are also higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for heart health. Butter made from cows that eat a feed mix instead of grass do not contain much, if any, omega-3 fatty acids.
The Margarine Mix
Margarine, on the other hand, was invented in the 1860s as a cheaper alternative to butter for French workers and soldiers during the Franco-Prussian war. According to the Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition, that first margarine was made from beef tallow churned with milk.
Later iterations cut out the animals and used hydrogenated plant oils. Hydrogenation is a process developed in the early 1900s that uses trans fats to solidify vegetable oils. This means the more solid the margarine, typically the higher the content of trans fats, and that’s not healthy.
“Trans fats can also increase your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL — the good — cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends eliminating trans fats from the diet,” Blackstone says.
The good news with margarine is that because it’s made from plant-based oils, that “can contribute heart-healthier fats,” Blackstone says.
The USDA reports that a tablespoon of stick margarine contains:
— Calories: 100.
— Fat: 11.3 grams.
— Saturated fat: 2.13 grams.
— Cholesterol: 0 milligrams.
— Carbohydrates: 0 grams.
Some brands are fortified with vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids.
Light margarine is made with more water than traditional stick margarine, which can lighten the calorie load. The USDA reports that a tablespoon of light or tub margarine contains:
— Calories: 74.6.
— Fat: 8.37 grams.
— Saturated fat: 1.69 grams.
— Cholesterol: 0.14 milligrams.
— Carbohydrates: 0.12 grams.
Which Is Healthier?
Margarine contains significantly less saturated fat than butter. So that means reading labels at the grocery store.
Whether you choose butter or margarine, “choosing a softer tub margarine or liquid oils in place of butter, and/or stick margarine can help decrease your saturated fat and trans fat intake, lowering your risk of heart disease,” Blackstone says.
Other Plant-Based Spreads
While butter and margarine might be the most well-known types of spreads, there are a wide variety of alternative plant-based spreads on the market these days.
“You can find plant-based spreads that contain plant stanols and sterols (natural compounds in plant-based foods that have similar properties to cholesterol) that have been shown to help in lowering LDL cholesterol, in conjunction with a diet that’s low in saturated fat and cholesterol,” Blackstone says.
Joan Ifland, a nutrition researcher, processed food addiction counselor and the founder of Food Addiction Reset, LLC, a food addiction recovery counseling service based in the Seattle area, says an even better bet than buying a processed product at the store, is making your own spread. This means “you control the ingredients.”
Some plant-based recommendations include:
— Mashing avocado and using it like peanut butter on toast. “This is a great spread, although destruction of natural forestation to meet increasing demand for avocados is a concern,” Ifland says.
— Drizzling cold-pressed olive oil or avocado oil.
— Spreading good-quality coconut oil.
— Mashing hard-boiled eggs and mixing with virgin olive oil.
— Mincing olives and mixing with virgin olive oil.
— Dipping or smearing hummus, a spread made from chickpeas.
Watch Your Portions
No matter which fat you choose, be careful not to over-consume this vital macronutrient. While your body needs fat every day to function, because it’s so calorie-dense, it can be easy to overdo it.
Remember: a gram of fat contains 9 calories, whereas a gram of protein or a gram of carbohydrate contain only 4 calories each, and you also have to consider how things like butter or margarine fit into the entirety of your daily food consumption.
“If you don’t want to stop using butter, then be mindful of the portion and try not to exceed the recommendation of less than 6% of your total calories per day coming from saturated fats,” Blackstone says.
Most people crave fat from time to time, and it turns out, our brains are hardwired to want more of it, Ifland says. “Fat has been shown to activate the same pleasure pathway as cannabis,” which can contribute to overeating. “Fat, when combined with sugar, has been shown to be among the most highly addictive processed foods.”
Because butter and margarine so frequently show up in baked goods and other highly processed foods, it’s best to limit your intake of these items too, Ifland adds. “The combination of fats and refined carbohydrates has been shown to be very addictive.”
Instead, to get better control of your eating habits and still meet your dietary fat needs, Ifland recommends consuming “fats through animal proteins,” such as heart-healthy salmon or other fatty fish, in combination with whole vegetables. She also recommends “low-carb starches.”
Incorporating these kinds of healthy fats — that she notes “are protective against a wide range of diseases including dementia, Alzheimer’s and even cancer” — with minimally processed vegetables makes for a well-balanced meal that may help you better control your weight and potentially fend off certain chronic diseases, Ifland adds. “Fats are highly satisfying,” and incorporating some in each meal “could reduce your total consumption of food just because you’re more satisfied.”
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Update 01/20/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.