Which Is Better: Butter or Margarine?

In supermarkets across the country, butter and margarine battle over prime space on dairy shelves in an effort to win over consumers. But which is considered South Beach Diet-friendly?

The answer is trans-fat-free margarine (often labeled as vegetable-oil spread these days). The reason lies in the different types of fats that are contained in butter and margarine. Butter, made from animal fats, is high in artery-clogging saturated fats. Margarine, on the other hand, is made with vegetable oil, so it contains mainly polyunsaturated fat. But don't be deceived! While margarine contains less saturated fat than butter, the hard varieties (like stick margarine) are high in trans fats.

What Are Trans Fats?
Trans fats are manufactured in a process called hydrogenation, in which liquid vegetable oils are transformed into solid fats. They are used in foods like crackers, cookies, and pastries to improve their flavor and texture and to extend their shelf life. Like saturated fats, trans fats can raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol, but trans fats have also been shown to lower levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol. Studies have also shown that trans fats can increase the risk for obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. Not surprisingly, trans fats should be considered the worst fats of all and avoided.

The healthiest choice is a trans-fat-free liquid or tub margarine. It’s easy to make an informed decision about buying trans-fat-free products because in January 2006 the Food and Drug Administration required that the trans-fat content of packaged foods be included on the Nutrition Facts panel. The trans-fat number is listed after Total Fat and Saturated Fat, but only if the product contains 0.5 grams or more per serving. So be sure to check for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list to avoid trans fats altogether.

If you've been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you may elect to use one of the cholesterol-lowering vegetable-oil spreads made with phytosterols, also known as plant stanols and sterols. These compounds, found in sources like soybean oils, can help in reducing blood-cholesterol levels when used regularly.

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