Butter or margarine?

KRT FOOD STORY SLUGGED: BUTTER KRT PHOTO BY RALPH LAUER/FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM (DALLAS OUT) (December 17) After a long period of being out of style in favor of margarine, butter is coming back into popularity with home cooks. (FT) NC KD 2001 (Vert) (gsb)
KRT FOOD STORY SLUGGED: BUTTER KRT PHOTO BY RALPH LAUER/FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM (DALLAS OUT) (December 17) After a long period of being out of style in favor of margarine, butter is coming back into popularity with home cooks. (FT) NC KD 2001 (Vert) (gsb)



A friend called with a valid question that many of us wonder -- should she choose butter or margarine? Which is a healthier choice?

It's a hot topic debate that has been battled over the decades. Some claim that margarine is a heart healthy alternative to butter, while others claim that margarine is not "natural," and therefore should not be eaten.

Social media is full of concerns that "margarine is one molecule away from plastic" theory. It's true that margarine shares a similar chemical structure to plastic. However, many substances share similar chemical propositions and substances, but even the slightest variation will completely alter the end product. The slight differences in the chemical makeup of margarine and plastic lead to two totally different products. Don't let this margarine myth steer you away from margarine; it is not backed up by science, says Jenna Smith, nutrition educator with the University of Illinois Extension Service.

Margarine is made from vegetable oils, so it contains unsaturated "good" fats -- polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These types of fats help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad," cholesterol when substituted for saturated fat.

Butter is a dairy product made by churning milk or cream, and is made up of animal fat, which has dietary cholesterol and saturated fat, which can lead to heart problems if eaten in excess.

It used to be that margarine still wasn't the greatest alternative to butter because margarine had trans fats, which are just as bad, if not worse, than saturated fats. However, the good news is that many brands have eliminated trans fats from their products. In general, the more solid the margarine, the more trans fat it contains. So stick margarines usually have more trans fat than tub margarines do. Trans fat, like saturated fat, increases blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. In addition, trans fat lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol levels. Look for a spread that doesn't have trans fats and has the least amount of saturated fat. When comparing spreads, be sure to read the Nutrition Facts panel and check the grams of saturated fat and trans fat. Limit the amount you use to limit the calories.

The bottom line? Choose either one in moderation. Margarine without trans fats is the healthier choice, but if you prefer butter, decrease your saturated fat intake with other animal products, and be mindful about how much butter you are using. Butter lovers could also try whipped butter, which adds air but has fewer calories making it a spreadable option.

If you have high cholesterol, check with your doctor about using spreads that are fortified with plant stanols and sterols, such as Benecol and Promise Activ, which may help reduce cholesterol levels.

Q and A: 

Q: I heard that drinking coffee can cause calcium loss from the body. Is that true?

A: Caffeine, one component of coffee, is the focus of concern (since it may slightly increase calcium excretion). Research suggests this primarily may be relevant in people who don't meet their RDA for calcium. Researchers recently reviewed the science on caffeine and bone health in Food and Chemical Toxicology. They found that moderate caffeine intake (less than 400 mg per day, which is equivalent to nor more than four 8-ounce servings of regular coffee), regardless of the source, was associated with little effect on calcium balance or bone health in healthy adults, particularly if they were consuming enough calcium. In an observational study that looked specifically at high coffee intake (4 or more cups daily) versus a low intake (less than 1 cup daily), a high intake was associated with a 2 to 4 percent lower bone density compared to a low intake. But, this did not translate into an increased risk of bone fracture. The study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Keep in mind, most of the evidence on this topic is observational and further research is needed. Whether or not you drink a couple of cups of coffee (or other caffeine-containing beverages) daily, it's important to make sure you're meeting your calcium needs. The calcium RDA for adults is 1,000-1,200 mg per day, based on age and sex. -- Tufts University Health & Wellness Letter.