Butter vs Margarine: Which is healthier?

There is a lot of misinformation about nutrition on the Internet.

Part of this is based on poor research or incomplete evidence, while other information may simply be outdated.

The professionals themselves can even tell you things that seem to directly contradict something you read the other day.

A good example of a subject on which nobody seems to agree is the effect on the health of butter and margarine.

This article compares the two, looking at both sides of the debate.

What are butter and margarine?

Butter vs Margarine

Butter is a traditional staple made by beating the cream.

It is used mainly as fat for frying, spreading or component of sauces, cakes and pies.

As a concentrated source of milk fat, it is mainly composed of saturated fat.

Due to studies that associate a high intake of saturated fats with an increased risk of heart disease, public health authorities began recommending that people limit their consumption of butter in the 1970s.

Margarine is a processed food that is designed to have a taste and look similar to butter. It is often recommended as a healthy replacement for the heart.

Modern types of margarine are made from vegetable oils, which contain polyunsaturated fats that can reduce "bad" LDL cholesterol when used instead of saturated fats.

Since vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature, food scientists change their chemical structure to make them solid like butter.

During the last decades, a process known as hydrogenation has been used to harden vegetable oils in margarine.

Hydrogenation increases the saturated fat content of the oil, but unhealthy trans fats are formed as a byproduct (1).

A more recent process called interesterification achieves similar results without forming trans fats (2).

In addition to hydrogenated or interesterified vegetable oils, modern margarine may contain various food additives, including emulsifiers and colorants.

In short, modern margarine is a highly processed food product made from vegetable oils, while butter is basically concentrated milk fat.

Summary Butter is a dairy product made by cream shake. On the contrary, margarine is a product designed to imitate butter. While butter is mainly composed of milk fat, margarine is typically produced from vegetable oils.

Health benefits of butter

Butter may contain several nutrients that are not found in many other foods.

For example, butter from grass-fed cows may provide some vitamin K2, which has been associated with better bone health (3, 4).

In fact, butter from grass-fed cows appears to be a better source of many nutrients than butter from grain-fed cows.

Grass-fed butter is nutritious

The effects on the health of butter depend to a large extent on the diet of the cows from which they come.

Cows eat grass in their natural environment, but in many countries, their menu is based mainly on grain-based foods.

Butter from grass-fed cows is much more nutritious. It contains more:

  • Vitamin K2: This little-known vitamin can help prevent many serious diseases, such as cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease (5, 6, 7).

  • Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): Studies suggest that this fatty acid may have anticancer properties and help reduce the percentage of body fat (8, 9, 10).

  • Butirato: A short chain fatty acid found in butter that is also produced by bacteria in the intestine. It can fight inflammation, improve digestive health and can help prevent weight gain (11, 12, 13).

  • Omega 3: Grass-fed butter has less omega-6 and more omega-3, which is important because most people are already eating too much omega-6 (14).

However, butter is usually consumed in small quantities, and its contribution to the total intake of these nutrients in the diet is low.

Summary Butter from grass-fed cows contains much higher amounts of heart-healthy nutrients than butter from grain-fed cows.

Risks of eating butter

Some experts are concerned about the large amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol in butter and advise people to limit their consumption.

High content of saturated fats

For decades, butter has been demonized for its high content of saturated fats.

It is composed of around 50% saturated fat, while the rest is mainly water and unsaturated fat.

Observational studies investigating the association between saturated fat and heart disease have yielded mixed results (1, 15, 16, 17, 18).

A recent review of studies concluded that eating less saturated fat is associated with a 17% reduced risk of heart disease when it is replaced with polyunsaturated fat (19).

On the contrary, the change of saturated fat by carbohydrates or proteins seems to have no effect (19).

As a result, some experts doubt that the intake of saturated fats is really a cause for concern. Others remain convinced that excessive intake of saturated fats is a risk factor for heart disease (20).

In fact, health authorities have advised people to limit their consumption of saturated fats for decades.

Advocates of this popular opinion often point to studies showing that saturated fats increase "bad" LDL cholesterol levels.

While it is true that saturated fat promotes higher levels of LDL cholesterol, the story is a bit more complex (21).

Interestingly, some scientists believe that eating saturated fats can actually have some benefits, such as improving the lipid profile in the blood.

It can raise "good" HDL cholesterol and change the size of LDL cholesterol particles from small and dense to large, which is considered more benign (22, 23, 24).

There is no solid evidence to support claims that high consumption of butter or other dietary sources of saturated fats are directly responsible for heart disease (25)

However, more high-quality research is needed before scientists can fully understand the metabolism of saturated fats and their relevance to heart health.

Summary The high consumption of saturated fat has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, but the evidence is inconsistent. The subject is one of the most controversial in the science of nutrition.

High in cholesterol

Butter is also high in cholesterol.

Once it was thought that a high intake of cholesterol was a major risk factor for heart disease.

This concern was based on studies showing that elevated blood cholesterol levels were associated with an increased risk of heart disease (26).

However, it is now clear that getting moderate amounts of dietary cholesterol does not raise your blood levels in most people. The body compensates by producing less.

Normally, this keeps your blood levels in the normal range, although a very high intake can still cause a moderate increase in blood cholesterol levels (27, 28, 29).

Public health authorities have advocated low-cholesterol diets for decades.

These guidelines apply especially to people with familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic condition that causes abnormally high levels of cholesterol in the blood (30).

However, dietary strategies seem to have a limited effect in this group (31).

Scientists continue to debate the role of dietary cholesterol in heart disease, but concerns have been declining in recent years (29, 32).

Summary Butter is high in cholesterol. However, it has limited effects on blood cholesterol levels in most people.

Benefits for the health of margarine

The health benefits of margarine depend on what type of vegetable oils it contains and how it is processed.

It can be high in polyunsaturated fat

Most types of margarine are rich in polyunsaturated fats. The exact amount depends on what vegetable oils were used to produce it.

For example, margarine based on soybean oil may contain approximately 20% polyunsaturated fat (33).

Polyunsaturated fat is generally considered healthy. It may even have benefits for heart health compared to saturated fats.

As an example, the replacement of saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat has been associated with a 17% reduced risk of heart problems, but no significant effect on the risk of death from heart disease (34, 35).

Summary Margarine is often rich in polyunsaturated fats. Studies show that eating polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats can reduce the risk of heart problems.

May contain plant sterols and stanols

Some margarines are enriched with phytosterols or stanols. Vegetable oils are also naturally rich in these compounds.

Margarines enriched with phytosterol reduce total and "bad" LDL cholesterol, at least in the short term, but can also lower "good" HDL cholesterol (36, 37).

However, most studies have not detected a significant association between total phytosterol intake and the risk of heart disease (38, 39).

It is important to emphasize the difference between risk factors and difficult outcomes.

Summary Margarine based on vegetable oil is often rich in phytosterols. While phytosterols can lower LDL cholesterol levels, they do not seem to affect the risk of heart disease.

Risks of eating margarine

Although margarine may contain some nutrients for the heart, it often contains trans fats, which have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and other chronic health problems (1).

It can be high in trans fat

Vegetable oils are not solid at room temperature like butter.

To make them solid for use in margarine, food scientists chemically modify their structure through a process known as hydrogenation.

This involves exposing the oils to high temperatures, high pressure, hydrogen gas and a metallic catalyst.

Hydrogenation transforms part of the unsaturated fat into saturated fat, which is solid at room temperature, and also increases the shelf life of the product.

Unfortunately, trans fats are formed as a byproduct. A high intake of industrial trans fats has been linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases (1).

For this reason, the health authorities strongly recommend that people limit their use.

In addition, the FDA is implementing a ban on trans fats in all processed foods, although food producers may request an exception.

As a result, many food producers have begun using a new technique to harden vegetable oils in margarine.

This method is called interesterification. Replace some of the unsaturated fats in the oil with saturated fats (2).

Interesterified vegetable oils are considered healthier than hydrogenated oils because they do not contain trans fats.

If you prefer margarine instead of butter, try to select trans fat-free varieties. If it says "hydrogenated" anywhere in the list of ingredients, avoid it.

Summary Many margarines are high in trans fat, which is related to an increased risk of chronic diseases. However, due to negative publicity and new laws, margarines without trans fat are becoming increasingly common.

It can be high in omega-6 fat

There are many types of polyunsaturated fats.

They are often divided into categories based on their chemical structure. Two of the most common are omega-3 and omega-6 fats.

Omega-3 fats are considered anti-inflammatory, which means they act against inflammation. Conversely, eating too much omega-6 fat can promote chronic inflammation.

Based on ancestral diets, the optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is estimated to be around 1: 1.

If this relationship has any relevance to health, people are eating too much omega-6 fat today. In fact, it is estimated that the proportion is as high as 20: 1 in developed countries (40).

Observational studies have linked high intake of omega-6 fat with an increased risk of obesity and chronic diseases, such as heart disease and inflammatory bowel disease (41).

However, analyzes of controlled studies conclude that linoleic acid, the most common omega-6 fat, does not affect the levels of inflammatory markers in the blood (42, 43).

Due to this inconsistency, it is not clear if a high consumption of omega-6 fats is really a cause for concern. More research is needed.

Vegetable oils that are especially high in omega-6 fat include sunflower, corn, soybean and cottonseed oils.

If you are worried about eating too much omega-6 fat, avoid eating margarine that contains these oils.

Summary Margarine is often very high in polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids. Some scientists believe that excessive intake of omega-6 can promote inflammation, but controlled studies do not support this theory.

The bottom line

Butter and margarine look similar and are used for the same purpose in the kitchen.

However, their nutritional profiles differ. While butter is high in saturated fat, margarine is rich in unsaturated fats and, sometimes, trans fat.

The health effects of saturated fats are highly controversial, and their role in heart disease has been minimized in recent years.

Conversely, scientists agree that trans fats, found in some margarines, increase the risk of chronic diseases. For this reason, margarines without trans fats are becoming more common.

If you prefer margarine instead of butter, be sure to choose brands without trans fat and select products made with healthy oils, such as olive oil.

If your butter is your favorite, consider buying products made with grass-fed cow's milk.

In the end, there is no clear winner, but personally I prefer foods that are less processed, such as butter.

Whatever you choose, consume these products sparingly.

Reference: https: //www.healthline.com/nutrition/butter-vs-margarine


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