Butter or Margarine? First, Study the Label
09-09-2006 03:01 PM
Butter or Margarine? First, Study the Label
New York Times
September 5, 2006
Butter or Margarine? First, Study the Label
By JANE E. BRODY
The culinary battle between butter and margarine has raged for decades, but, it turns out, for the wrong reason. We now know that the partly hydrogenated fatty acids in margarine and many processed foods are harmful to health — more harmful, in fact, than the saturated fat in butter.
This does not mean butter is healthier. But it does mean consumers need to pay far more attention to the fat content of all the foods they consume, both at home and in restaurants. The process commonly used to convert liquid vegetable oil into a fat with the consistency of butter, the baking qualities of lard and a long shelf life forms trans fatty acids, which every diner and snacker should avoid.
Gram for gram, trans fats, as they are commonly called, are more hazardous to the heart than the saturated fats that damage arteries. Like saturated fats, they raise the “bad,” or L.D.L., cholesterol that can become glued to arteries; but unlike saturated fats, they also lower the “good” H.D.L. cholesterol that clears away these harmful deposits.
Butter is not a heart-healthy choice because its saturated fat far outweighs the trans fat in traditional stick margarines. Also, butter contains cholesterol, which can raise blood levels of cholesterol in some people; margarine, which is made from vegetable sources, does not.
The good news is that a Food and Drug Administration ruling, which took effect in January, requires food companies to list the amount of trans fats on the nutrition label of every package. As a result, most companies have switched the fats they use so they can say “no trans fats” on the label.
The bad news is that some substitutions — to tropical oils like palm, palm kernel and coconut — are reintroducing more heart-damaging saturated fats to American diets and causing environmental devastation in several countries where palm and coconut trees grow.
Furthermore, consumers who use the “no trans fats” label proclamation as their buying guide can still end up buying a lot of what nutritionists call junk foods. And the F.D.A. ruling does not apply to foods sold in restaurants, bakeries, takeout and other retail food outlets where unsuspecting consumers could be loading up on harmful trans fats.
That prompted the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in March to ask the city’s 20,000 restaurants and 14,000 food suppliers to eliminate partly hydrogenated oils from kitchens and provide foods and food products free of industrially produced trans fatty acids.
What Trans Fats Do
The health concerns about trans fats go far beyond the effects on blood cholesterol. In a report in the June issue of The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers led by Katherine M. Phillips, a biochemist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, reviewed what is known about trans fats and their alternatives.
The “trans” in trans fatty acids refers to the biochemical configuration of the fat molecule. Natural polyunsaturated fatty acids in vegetable oils have a “cis” conformation: the hydrogen atoms in each double bond are on the same side. But the processes used in partial hydrogenation results in some double bonds with a “trans” conformation: hydrogen atoms on opposite sides of each double bond.
This little biochemical switch turns out to have potentially devastating health effects. In addition to raising bad cholesterol (especially the small L.D.L. particles that stick to blood vessels) and lowering good cholesterol, trans fatty acids raise blood levels of triglycerides and lipoprotein (a), which raise cardiovascular risk.
But that is not all. Trans fatty acids, when compared with cis-unsaturated fats, also raise blood levels of substances like C-reactive protein that are markers of bodywide inflammation and cellular dysfunction, also linked to heart and blood vessel disease.
Trans fats can interfere with the metabolism of essential fatty acids, the synthesis of healthful omega-3 fatty acids and the balance of prostaglandins, disrupting protection against blood clots. And high intakes of trans fats may cause insulin resistance, a marker of type 2 diabetes.
In a recent review in The New England Journal of Medicine on the relationship between trans fats and heart disease, even low levels of trans fats in the diet — a mere 1 percent to 2 percent of calories per day — were linked to a substantially increased risk of heart disease. In studies of 140,000 individuals, consuming 2 percent of calories as trans fats resulted in a 23 percent increase in heart disease.
In 1983, scientists at the United States Department of Agriculture estimated that the average American consumed 8 grams of trans fats a day (that’s 3.6 percent of a 2,000-calorie diet), with 85 percent coming from foods containing partly hydrogenated oils and the rest from trans fats naturally present in meat and dairy products.
The low levels of trans fats in meats and dairy products result from hydrogenation by microbes in the gut of ruminant animals (cows, sheep and goats). In addition, small amounts of trans fats are formed when vegetable oils are refined at high temperatures.
A more recent estimate based on mid-1990’s data by the F.D.A. put the average trans fat consumption by adults at 5.8 grams a day. The main contributors of these fats were cakes and related products (23.8 percent), margarine (16.5 percent), cookies and crackers (9.8 percent), fried potatoes (8.3 percent), chips and snacks (4.8 percent) and household shortenings (4.3 percent).
Choosing Healthier Foods
The new food label rule exempts products with less than 0.5 gram of trans fatty acid per serving, which can list the amount as zero per serving. But if someone eats, say, four servings of the food instead of one, as many do, the amount of trans fats consumed can have a significant effect.
The only way to know if a zero listing really means zero is to check the ingredients list. If partly hydrogenated oil is an ingredient, there is some trans fat in the food. (Fully hydrogenated oils, listed only as “hydrogenated,” do not contain trans fats. Rather, these fats are saturated.)
Furthermore, the listing of trans fats is meaningful only if consumers read the label and select foods that have no trans fats and no partly hydrogenated oils.
If you want to avoid trans fats when eating out or buying takeout, you have to ask how a food was prepared. Ask what cooking fats were used, including the oils in salad dressings. The New England Journal authors said that to avoid adverse health effects, “complete or near-complete avoidance of industrially produced trans fats” is necessary.
To protect heart health, you would be wise, as well, to avoid foods made with tropical oils (palm, palm kernel and coconut), which contain saturated fatty acids.
Soft and liquid margarines have little or no trans fats. And American producers are working hard to develop alternative methods of producing shelf-stable vegetable oils, which should be on the shelf in the next year or so.
McDonald’s in Denmark, where there is a legal limit on industrially produced trans fats in foods (less than 2 percent), manages to serve food without these harmful fats. Why not here? Denmark has shown that eliminating partly hydrogenated vegetable oils from foods in stores and restaurants does not result in a loss of palatability, availability or quality, or an increase in the cost or consumption of saturated fats.
09-09-2006 03:11 PM
I'd rather just use butter than margarine.
09-09-2006 03:42 PM
Butter is a better choice and better tasting. hmmmm.
On a much more serious note:
Layne posted a mention about the article below over and M&M some time ago. Its a very good article that provides a lot more useful information than most media outlets do.
I'm always skeptical of any nutritional recommendations I see in print or in any other media. 99% is just sound bites turned into 1 page features on latest 'bad for you' item of the day. No real research to back up the story, and no consideration to the bigger picture.
Its too long to post, but i googled it and got this link for a pdf file
If that does not work, the article is titled 'The soft science of dietary fat' google that and you'll get numerous choices if you just want to read it on the web instead of pdf format.
09-09-2006 04:01 PM
Bah, Smart Balance Light w/flaxseed all the way!
09-09-2006 04:11 PM
Yeah, I've been pretty happy w/ the Smart Balance Light.
09-09-2006 04:19 PM
Indeed. It's pretty tasty. I use it for my eggs in the morning.
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