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There is much controversy surrounding these two spreads that look similar and essentially serve the same purpose but it is well worth knowing the difference, and more importantly, the facts that will hopefully put this debate to rest.

Firstly, the reason for the creation of margarine in the 1860’s is a very simple one. In war times, butter was difficult to get hold of and somewhat of a luxury in terms of cost. The margarine invented as an affordable substitute butter is however not the same margarine sold as the heart healthy tubs of soft ‘margarine’ we see in supermarket refrigerators today.

On a closer look, these soft ‘margarines’ are not actually even labelled as ‘margarine’ but rather as fat spreads with varying fat compositions reflected by percentages. The fat content requirement for a butter substitute to be labeled as a margarine is 80% which is equivalent to that of butter.

What are the fats?

While margarine is still available in solid bricks, the general rule is, the more solid the fat, the more trans fats it contains. Knowing that trans fats increase the risk for heart disease, brick margarine is never advocated as a healthy fat choice.

The reduction of trans fats in soft fat spreads sold in tubs is due to the addition of palm oil and or coconut oil as an ingredient. These are the only saturated plant fats and due to the fact that they are solid at room temperature (full hydrogenated), the need for the hydrogenation (a process that produces trans fats) of the vegetable oil is eliminated.

As a result, the fat found in these fat spreads is comprised of saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Regular fat spreads contain 60 % fat while the lowest fat spread available contains 35 %. The reason for this is simple switch between the vegetable oil content and the water content.

The ingredients list taken from a tub of 60% fat spread is as follows:

Vegetable oils and fats (60%) [sunflower seed and / or rapeseed and /or linseed and /or soya bean oil, fully hydrogenated fats (palm, palm kernel and/ or coconut)], water (39%), salt, whey powder, emulsifiers (E471, E322), preservative (sodium benzoate and/or potassium sorbate), citric acid, flavouring, beta-carotene, vitamins (A,D,E).

It seems significant to highlight that the additives listed after the oils, fats and water make up only 1 % of the fat spread ingredients.

Butter is higher in saturated fats with 100 g of butter containing about 50 grams of saturated fat compared to the 15 grams of saturated fats contained in a 60 % fat spread. While there is still debate regarding the health effects of saturated fat, the World Health Organization, recommends that saturated fat be limited to no more than 10 % of total energy intake.

Butter or Margarine for weight loss?

While butter is purely butter with perhaps a little salt added for flavour, being 80 % fat, makes it much higher in energy that fat spreads sold in tubs and labelled as heart healthy. A teaspoon of butter will add 152 kilojoules while a teaspoon of 60 % fat spread will add 114 kilojoules and a teaspoon of a 35 % fat spread will only add 67 kilojoules.

While a high fat meal might result in feeling fuller for longer and hopefully curb unnecessary snacking, a high fibre meal can have the same effect without the additional kilojoules.

Is margarine plastic?

Many argue that margarine (a generalization used for all fat spreads save butter) is virtually plastic, and far from natural but a brief look at the ingredients list on a tub of fat spread will tell you that this is not true. It is even possible to make margarine in a home kitchen.

Early margarine was did not display as much ‘plasticity’ as butter, simply meaning that it can be molded and retain its new shape. Milk and water were therefore added to vegetable oil shortening and it was named ‘margarine’ based on its scientific properties.

If it were even possible to add one molecule to margarine and convert it to hard plastic, it would no longer be margarine but plastic. One molecule makes a huge difference and is wonderfully illustrated by the difference between hydrogen peroxide and water which differ chemically by only one molecule, oxygen!

Which should you choose?

In moderation, neither is harmful but neither, margarine nor butter should be used in large quantities, especially when the alternatives to both are far more tasty and nutritious. Think nuts, nut butters, olives, olive oil, avocado and seeds!

For some, there is no choice as fat spreads are not only kilojoule sparing options, they remain a cost effective substitute for butter. The aim of this article is to highlight the importance of making health choices based on reason rather than rhyme.

By Kelly Francis, Registered Dietitian

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