Archive for Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Spreading yourself thinner

Margarine often healthier alternative, but butter may be better for baking

January 24, 2007


Laurel Eastling understands any confusion a shopper might have in the dairy aisle.

In addition to butter, there are dozens of butter substitutes on the market - in sticks, tubs and even sprays.

It creates a quandary for those who love the taste of butter but also love to keep their arteries unclogged.

But there is good news, says Eastling, Health Market manager at Hy-Vee, 4000 W. Sixth St.

"I think as this has become more and more of a topic that's paid more attention to, companies are coming up with good-tasting butter substitutes," Eastling says. "And there are so many butter substitutes."

The historical head-to-head competition for spreads has been butter vs. margarine. That's still the case, though phrases like "trans-fat free," "light" and "heart healthy" are adding confusion to the selection process.

So here's your primer for understanding the spread of spreads that awaits you at the grocery store.

The skinny on fat

The Mayo Clinic, considered an authority on most health care issues, breaks it down this way:

Which should you use?

Here are guidelines from the National Institutes of Health for choosing butter or margarine:¢ Use canola or olive oil instead of butter or margarine.¢ Choose margarines with liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient.¢ Even better, choose "light" margarines that list water as the first ingredient, because these are even lower in saturated fat.¢ If you have high cholesterol, talk to your doctor about using margarines made from plant sterols or stanols. These substances, made from soybean and pine tree oils, can help lower your LDL cholesterol by as much as 6 percent to 15 percent. The American Heart Association recommends further study for children, pregnant women and those without high cholesterol.

Butter is made from animal fats, which contain cholesterol and high levels of saturated fats. Margarine, on the other hand, is made from vegetable oils, which contain no cholesterol.

Of course, margarine does contain fats, but they're the "good" fats that help lower "bad" cholesterol levels.

But, as the Mayo Clinic puts it, "not all margarines are created equal - and some may even be worse than butter." That's because most are processed by adding hydrogen to the oils, which creates trans fats. Trans fats increase cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, and they lower "good" cholesterol levels.

So how can you tell the difference? Generally, the more solid a margarine is, the more trans fats it has. So stick margarine is worse for you than tub margarine.

The good news

Margarine companies are coming up with even healthier products as time goes on, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

By increasing the amount of water or liquid vegetable oil and decreasing the amount of hydrogenated vegetable oil, some products now can claim to be "trans-fat free" - which can be claimed if the margarine has 0.5 grams or less of trans fats per serving.

But that doesn't mean every option will taste the same to you when you spread it on your morning toast.

Count Eastling among those who occasionally splurges on real butter.

"Some things don't taste the same without butter," she says.

She suggests taste-testing by buying small amounts of various spreads and seeing which ones you like the most. Her personal favorite is Earth Balance margarine.

"I'd just experiment with some of them," she says.

Butter baking

If you're looking to make a recipe that calls for butter, though, you might be in for a bigger challenge, says Ken Baker, owner and executive chef at Pachamama's, 800 N.H.

How does butter stack up compared to margarine? It can depend on the makeup of the latter. The more solid margarine is, the more trans fats it probably contains, and thus might be even less healthy than butter.

How does butter stack up compared to margarine? It can depend on the makeup of the latter. The more solid margarine is, the more trans fats it probably contains, and thus might be even less healthy than butter.

"In general," he says, "nothing works as well as butter."

If you're sauteing something, you can substitute olive oil for a healthier alternative.

But Baker says because margarines have different makeups than butter, baked goods might end up having a different consistency.

"It's not chemically the same whenever you're using a substitute," he says.

The Margarine Awareness Resource Group, a trade organization advocating the use of margarine, says margarines that contain 60 percent or more in oil products almost always can be substituted for butter in recipes. Those products include most regular margarines, but generally not ones market reduced-fat or light.

However, the group says margarine might not work in certain recipes that require a precise amount of fat and moisture, such as pastry crusts.

Like Eastling, Baker suggests experimenting with a particular recipe if you don't want to use butter.

"In my mind, it's whatever people are comfortable using," Baker says. "If they feel better using substitutes, go ahead and find an alternative."

Butter-pop culture

Memorable moments of butter and margarine in pop culture:¢ "Butter" has been the name of at least two films through the years, according to the Internet Movie Database ( The more recent one, in 1998, starred Terrence Howard and Donnie Wahlberg. The other was a German silent film made in 1915.¢ The Yooks and the Zooks - two fictional races of people in "The Butter Battle Book" by Dr. Seuss - warred for centuries over whether they should put butter on the top or bottom of their bread.¢ Beefcake model Fabio served as spokesman for "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter," a margarine brand.¢ Butterglory was a 1990s alternative/indie rock band in Lawrence.¢ Stan Free, a keyboard player in the 1960s and 1970s for musicians such as the Monkees and John Denver, had several hits under the one-man-band name Hot Butter.¢ Parkay's "talking tub" advertising campaign was a hit starting in the 1970s. A tub of the margarine would say "Parkay" every time someone said "butter."¢ "Seinfeld" character Cosmo Kramer uses butter as shaving cream and tanning lotion in an episode.


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