Know Your Butter


First, butter lost its place at the head of the table due to widespread panic over saturated fat, and margarine was king. Then margarine was revealed to be a health villain when we discovered that its trans fat is even worse than saturated fat. Now the refrigerated dairy section has seen a somewhat confusing proliferation of new, creamy, light yellow spreads –– they're called spreads, not margarine, if they are made up of less than 80 percent oil.

Most of them say "no hydrogenated oils!" or "trans fat free!" because in the old margarine days, these spreads were all made of hydrogenated vegetable oil, a.k.a. trans fat. (The careful label reader will notice that these new spreads still contain hydrogenated oil. That's because food marketers are allowed to say something is "free" if there is .5 gram or less.) Some are made with only "cold-pressed" or "expeller pressed" oils. Some are enhanced with healthy, omega-3 oils. Others are pumped up with plant sterols, in hopes of reducing high cholesterol. Most of the stick margarines have more trans fat or saturated fat than the tub margarines and spreads, because it's trans or saturated fat that allows sticks to hold their shape.

Some spread factors to consider:

  • Price. Depending on how the spread is made and what is added to it, etc., prices can range dramatically.
  • Taste. It's a very subjective matter, so experiment a bit. A recent Consumer Reports taste test gave Smart Balance the nod for best flavor.
  • Fat profile. Go for the lowest in trans and saturated fat, but understand that less fat means more water and can mean the spread isn't suitable for use in cooking.
  • Calories. If you're looking to reduce caloric intake, a tablespoon of spread can contain 5 calories (fat-free) or 100 calories (full-fat). If you're not watching calories, however, you're better off getting the benefits of the polyunsaturated oils used in the higher calorie, higher fat spreads.

Reviewed by Francine Kaufman, MD. 4/08

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