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Is butter really better?

Blog post | 05 Jun 2018

Like stonewashed jeans and the royal family, butter is back in fashion. Many people love that it's 'all natural', containing just cream, milk and sometimes salt. But all natural doesn't always mean healthy, especially if a food is consumed with abandon.

Here are the facts about butter, table spreads and other, natural alternatives — so you can decide what's best for you.

The skinny on fat

Butter tastes great, but it's very high in fat. Different foods contain different types of fat, each with their own chemical structure: saturated, trans fatty acids ('trans fat'), monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Too much saturated fat raises your risk of heart disease because it increases the level of LDL ('bad') cholesterol in your blood, which can clog arteries.

Trans fat is found naturally in some foods, such as butter, cheese and meat, and can also be created during a process called hydrogenation, which converts liquid oils into the solid fat needed to get the right consistency in certain foods.

Trans fat raises your risk of heart disease by increasing the LDL cholesterol, while lowering the HDL ('good') cholesterol, in your blood. HDL cholesterol is good because it helps stop LDL cholesterol from building up.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, on the other hand, can reduce the risk of high cholesterol and heart disease when consumed in place of saturated and trans fats.

You can eat butter — sort of

Butter is made up of around 50% saturated fat and 4% trans fat. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that a person's daily diet consist of no more than 10% saturated fat (or, 10g of saturated fat for every 100g of food you eat) and 1% trans fat (or, 1g of trans fat for every 100g of food).

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) classes butter and foods rich in butter as 'discretionary items', meaning they should be consumed occasionally and in small amounts.

The NHMRC recommends replacing foods that contain mostly saturated fats such as butter, cream, cooking margarine (e.g. 'Fairy'), coconut oil and palm oil with foods that contain mostly (healthy) polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as oils, spreads, nut butters and avocado.

If you don't have high cholesterol — you can ask your doctor about a simple test if not sure — and you can't live without butter, look for brands with lower saturated fat. You can check the label for this info. And perhaps don't eat butter like it's going out of fashion: aim for 1 teaspoon of butter on your toast, versus 1 tablespoon.

'I can't believe it's not butter'

Margarine was once maligned because it was high in trans fat. These days, instead of hydrogenation, food manufacturers use healthier methods to ensure margarine and other table spreads are, well, spreadable.

As a result, plant and veggie-based spreads contain, on average, just 0.2g of trans fat per 100g, compared with 4g of trans fat in 100g of butter. Plant spreads and margarine also have about 70% less saturated fat than butter.

There's nothing weird about the ingredients in table spreads, either (in case you were wondering). They're typically made mostly of vegetable oils such as canola, plus water, salt, emulsifier, milk solids, a preservative such as potassium sorbate, food acid, natural colours and flavours, and vitamins A and D.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) checks that all additives and preservatives are both safe and necessary before they are used.

Can table spreads lower cholesterol?

Professor Bruce Neal, Deputy Executive Director of The George Institute for Global Health, says cholesterol-lowering spreads are his top pick.

"These spreads not only have less saturated fat than butter, they also contain plant sterols that reduce LDL cholesterol by about 10%," Professor Neal explains. "Though they are not an alternative to statins (cholesterol-lowering prescription medicines), they are cheaper, they're very likely to benefit you, and they are very unlikely to cause you harm."

To get the cholesterol-lowering benefit, however, you need to consume 25g (around 5 teaspoons) of these spreads each day.

If you love butter because it's natural, there are other unprocessed, equally-natural options, such as olive oil, avocado, nut butters and tahini. Compared with butter, these spreads offer unsaturated fats, minimal saturated fats and zero trans fats — all good for a healthier heart.

Watch this video by The George Institute for Global Health to learn more about butter.

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