This is a VERY good question and highly debated amongst many of the leading health professionals in Australia.
Personally, I think it depends on YOUR overall diet and fat intake as a whole, which an Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD) can help you determine. If you're already consuming a low fat diet (eg. limiting takeaway, high fat/high sugar snacks like chocolate and cakes etc, using low fat dairy products, choosing lean meat varieties etc etc) AND your blood lipids (such as cholesterol) are within the normal range then using Butter is absolutely okay!
The Heart Foundation strongly recommends margarine as a healthier choice to butter. A major review recently undertaken by the Heart Foundation highlighted that Australians are consuming too much saturated fat. By simply swapping butter to margarine on your toast in the mornings and your sandwich at lunch, studies show that you can reduce your saturated fat intake by 2.5kg over 1 year!
As a general overview of the nutritional components of butter versus margarine - total energy is relatively the same (that is, kilojoules/calories):
1. Butter - as it is derived from an animal product it is naturally higher in what we call saturated fat (bad fat) which will have the MOST impact on your cholesterol levels (and therefore your risk of heart disease). Butters also tend to be higher in sodium (salt) which can have an effect on your blood pressure.
2. Margarine - as margarines are derived from plant seeds they have very little to no saturated fat (bad fats) and are actually extrememly good sources of ‘good fats’ which are good for our hearts, regenerating healthy skin and making many hormones. These fats are known as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, found in margarines made from canola, sunflower, olive or dairy blends.
Controversially, margarines are developing a bit of a bad reputation because of their Trans Fat concentrations. These fats are like saturated fats and are known for an increased risk of heart disease. Trans fats are naturally found in products (known as ruminant sources such as meat and dairy products) and are also formed during the manufacturing process of margarine.
THE GOOD NEWS is that in Australia, the amount of Trans Fats allowed in our food supply are VERY tightly regulated by the Australian Food Authority. In fact, studies conducted in 2009 show that Australian's actually have one of the lowest levels of exposure to Trans Fats IN THE WORLD and are well within the recommendations set out by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This suggests that our intake of saturated fat is of a greater concern in terms of preventing heart disease, as 60-75% of Australian's Trans Fat intake actually comes from ruminant sources (eg. fullfat dairy products and fatty meat) which are also high in saturated fat!
So instead of stressing out about the levels of Trans Fats in margarines which are also providing a rich source of good fats - look at reducing your Trans Fat consumption through ruminant sources by:
- choosing lean meat varieties
- trimming visible fat off your meat
- choosing low fat dairy products
- and also limiting takeaway and high fat snacks
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