Until recently, most experts said that margarine is better for our health than butter. But now, margarine has been implicated as a possible risk factor for heart disease. However, you should know that not all margarines are created equal, and some are actually a healthy choice.
Stick margarine is the type that researchers believe may increase the risk of heart disease. To keep margarine solid at room temperature, prolong its shelf life, and improve the texture of many baked goods that are made with it, manufacturers force hydrogen into the unsaturated vegetable oil. The resulting "partially hydrogenated" vegetable oil contains two ingredients known to be harmful to the heart: saturated fat, which constitutes almost 25 percent of the margarine, and trans fats, which make up another 25 percent.
According to medical experts, both saturated fat and trans fats elevate LDL cholesterol, the kind that clogs arteries. Trans fats also lower levels of so-called good cholesterol (HDL) and raise the level of harmful blood fats called triglycerides. Preliminary evidence suggests that trans fats may also increase the risk of breast cancer; further research is needed to confirm this.
In large-scale studies at Harvard University, participants who consumed as little as 1 teaspoon of stick margarine a day for more than a decade raised their risk of a heart attack by 10 percent. Trans fats are believed to have been the main culprit.
Soft (tub) or liquid margarines are better than either stick margarines or butter. Less hydrogen is added, so they don’t contain as much saturated fat or trans fats, and contain more unsaturated fat, which actually lowers blood levels of LDL cholesterol. Margarine spreads labeled "low in saturated fat" and "non-hydrogenated" are good choices.
So with the health risks posed by consuming margarines, particularly stick margarine, should consumers go back to butter? "Not on your life," say experts. A review of 20 studies comparing butter and stick margarine showed that both raise the risk of heart disease. Although butter has only one-eighth of the trans fats of stick margarine, it contains more than 50 percent saturated fat – more than twice as much as any margarine. If you can’t conquer your craving for butter, at least use it sparingly whenever possible; it’s easy enough to replace it with jam, for instance, on toast.
The healthiest fats of all – one step better than liquid margarines – are natural, unhydrogenated vegetable oils, particularly canola oil and olive oil (wonderful for dipping bread into). Still, all fat – even the unsaturated kind – should be consumed in moderation; experts advise that it should make up no more than 30 percent of your calories per day.
Always remember the rule of thumb for a healthful margarine: The softer it is, the better. As a result, tubs are healthier than sticks – and liquids are better than both.