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article imageOp-Ed: Butter or margarine: Can the debate be resolved?

By Tim Sandle     Feb 11, 2015 in Health
Which best to spread on your morning slice of toast: butter or margarine? Or are they both equally as good? Or equally as bad? Digital Journal attempts to review the latest evidence.
This week, Digital Journal reported that advice given to consumers in both the U.S. and U.K. about the health risks associated with butter and other dairy products has not been borne out by clinical evidence. This led some media outlets to misleadingly claim that butter was good for you. The reality is a little more complicated, and every drift away from a balanced diet with all things in moderation eventually returns to the recommendation for "a balanced diet with all things in moderation."
This issue over the risks or otherwise of butter re-opens a long-running debate between advocates of butter and champions of margarine.
The debate is complicated by the fact that butter is a fairly universal product. It may taste a little different depending on the breed of cow the milk was taken from, and it can be salted or unsalted; nonetheless, in the end butter is butter. However, with margarine there is a broad spectrum of different products concocted in the laboratory of the food technologist.
Butter is a dairy product made by churning fresh or fermented cream or milk, to separate the butterfat from the buttermilk. Butter is high in saturated fat (over 60 percent); and such fats have been highlighted in some studies as presenting a risk of coronary heart disease. Margarine is made mainly of refined vegetable oil and water, and may also contain milk. Typical soft tub margarine contains 10 to 20 percent of saturated fat.
Although margarines contain less saturated fats, some margarines contain equally unhealthy trans fats, while others carry confusing and also make unsubstantiated health claims. Trans fat, like saturated fat, increases blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. In addition, the Mayo Clinic points out, trans fat lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol levels. As a counterclaim, some argue that butter is an "all-natural" choice against the test tube science behind margarine.
Furthermore, there is disagreement over the issue of fats and health. A major review of scientific studies on fat, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition a couple of years ago, concluded that there was no convincing evidence that saturated fat caused heart disease. This is in contrast to other studies that emphasize the benefits of polyunsaturated fats.
With varying health claims, not all polyunsaturated fatty acids are good for the heart. The U.K. National Health Service (NHS) reviewed a study where margarines made with safflower oil used as a source of omega-6, were declared a health risk within a certain, narrow group of the population (middle-aged men who had had heart attacks.)
The NHS site did, however, state that other omega-6 polyunsaturated fats are not a concern. Importantly, the proportions of omega-3 or omega-6 content and the types of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids that they contain vary widely across different products.
In terms of the expert advice, according to the website Heath, the American Heart Association recommends people use soft, trans-fat-free spreads instead of regular butter or the unhealthy varieties of margarine (those which contain partially hydrogenated oils.)
It would seem that the butter or margarine debate will not be resolved any time soon. The one take home message is, however, that not all margarines are healthy.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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