Utterly confused about butter, margarine and olive oil spreads? Caitlin Reid explains how to make the healthiest choices.
What are the choices?
Butter is 80%, and most of this is saturated fat. It has a rich yellow colour due to the beta-carotene found in Australian milk. Butter comes in many forms, including salted, unsalted, reduced-salt, low-salt and cultured varieties.
These are a mix of butter and vegetable oil and are easier to spread than butter. Dairy blends can be a good compromise for those who like the taste of butter, as they contain less saturated fat. However, they contain more saturated fat than all other spreads.
A true margarine contains a minimum of 80% fat (80g of fat per 100g of margarine). There are very few true margarines available in Australia today – most fall under one of the categories below. Margarines are a good source of vitamin E and contain added vitamin D.
Monounsaturated spreads: These spreads, which contain canola or olive oil, are rich in heart-friendly monounsaturated fats. Canola is also a good source of omega-3 fats and, despite the myths surrounding canola oil, there is no evidence to suggest you should be wary of it. Clinical trials have shown that it lowers LDL – the ‘bad’ cholesterol – as well as total cholesterol levels.
Polyunsaturated spreads: These contain oils such as sunflower, flaxseed and soybean, which are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fats. There is no strong reason for choosing a monounsaturated spread over a polyunsaturated variety, as both types contain low levels of saturated and trans fat.
These spreads contain less fat than oil-based spreads, with most containing about 30% fat. They are good for people trying to watch their weight and for those trying to reduce their fat intake.
Plant sterol-enriched spreads: These contain added plant sterols, which are naturally occurring substances found in all plants. Research shows that plant sterols can lower blood cholesterol levels by up to 10%, therefore helping to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Added vitamins: Some spreads contain added vitamin A, D and E. These vitamins have been added to increase dietary intake, which is particularly useful for the elderly. Research shows that inclusion of this spread in a normal diet can increase blood levels of vitamin A and E, improving vitamin status in the elderly.
Lactose-free: This is a good option for people who are intolerant to lactose, or those following a dairy-free diet.
Cholesterol-free: If a spread is made from plant oils and skim milk powder it will be cholesterol-free. A spread containing animal fats, such as milk solids or cream, will also contain cholesterol, which means the more butter there is in a spread, the more cholesterol it contains.
Which spread should I choose?
Look for a table spread which contains the lowest amount of saturated and trans fat. These spreads will be high in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. If you are trying to watch your weight, a reduced-fat spread would be a better option, while a salt-reduced spread is good for those wanting to lower their sodium intake. Functional spreads are good for people with specific nutritional needs, but it’s best to check with an Accredited Practising Dietitian to see whether you will benefit from them.
Who should eat plant sterol-enriched spreads?
People with high cholesterol may benefit from eating spreads containing plant sterols as they have been shown to lower cholesterol levels. The Heart Foundation recommends that people with high cholesterol levels consume 2-3g of plant sterols daily, which is equivalent to 4-6 teaspoons of plant sterol-enriched margarine. Plant sterols can also be added to breakfast cereal, low-fat yoghurt and low-fat milk.
Can I cook with low-fat spreads?
Reduced-fat spreads should not be used for cooking, especially in baked goods such as pastries and cookies, which require precise amounts of fat and moisture. While fat adds kilojoules, it also contributes texture and browning properties. When baking, use a spread that has a higher total fat content (over 60%), but is low in saturated and trans fat. You can use reduced-fat spreads only when you are using recipes which have been specifically developed for these spreads. When frying, it’s best to use a plant-based oil rather than a spread, as these are more likely to splatter when heated.
What about trans fat?
Trans fats can be created when a plant oil is converted to a solid fat, in a process called hydrogenation. In the US, this hydrogenation process means that the country’s margarines contain high levels of trans fats. However, in Australia, different processing methods mean our spreads contain virtually no trans fats. Trans fats should be limited in the diet because they increase cholesterol levels in the body. Always read the label on your spread, and choose the one with the lowest amount of trans fat.