Butter Versus Low Fat Spread: Who Wins?

Shivangana Vasudeva, NDTV  |  Updated: July 11, 2016 16:02 IST

Butter Versus Low Fat Spread: Who Wins?
It’s a slippery argument that has ruined the morning toast for many and often left us confused at the supermarket.  While I’ve always believed that butter is better (best when churned in my grandmother’s kitchen), researchers and nutritionists seem divided. Let’s unpick the debate for you right here.

Both can be used for cooking or simply as a spread but butter and margarine are two very different products. The primary factor that sets them apart is what they’re made of and the type of fats they contain. Butter is a dairy derivative which is made by churning cow’s milk. The churning process separates the butterfat (the solids) from the buttermilk (the liquid).

Margarine was invented in 1869 by a French food scientist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who was challenged by Napoleon III to create a cheaper alternative to butter to feed troops in the Franco-Prussian war. Mège-Mouriès mixed skimmed milk, water and beef fat and got a substance similar to butter in texture.  It was called ‘oleomargarine’ after margarites, the Greek word for pearls its pearly sheen. In 1871, the patent was sold to Jurgens, a Dutch firm now part of Unilever. Beef fat was eventually replaced with vegetable oils.
Butter and margarine have been fighting a battle on the health front for decades.  On one side, butter contains animal fat and therefore, it has cholesterol and is higher in saturated fat. On the other, there is margarine with vegetable oil. Margarine defenders claim that using plant-based oil makes it rich with cholesterol-lowering polyunsaturated fats and it is enriched with vitamins and minerals. If only, that was the whole story.

Vegetable oil is liquid at room temperature which is often hydrogenated to give margarine its consistency and extended shelf life. Hydrogenation may turn some vegetable oils into trans fats. By now, you would have known that trans-fat is a no-no. Dr. Shikha Sharma, Wellness Expert and Founder of NutriHealth, tells me, “During the World War 2, there was a major shortage of dairy products which led to the creation of a butter substitute that has a similar texture by using cheap vegetable oil instead of milk. In the food industry, hydrogen is added to vegetable oils to make them more solid. This changes the chemical composition of the oil that the body cannot digest. There is so much research that points to the fact that trans fat is double trouble for your heart health. It reduces your good cholesterol and shoot up your bad cholesterol."

It was around the 50s and 60s when the dairy industry was at its peak and people were overdosing with cream and butter. This led to studies that demonized butter as a source of unhealthy saturated fats that increase your cholesterol. But there has been a change of heart in the recent years. So was saturated not so bad or was it just bad science? “According to the new theory of the American College of Cardiology, there is no convincing evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease but unsaturated fats and whole grains can help improve heart health. Also, you end up consuming more saturated fat in milk than butter. As far as your cholesterol is concerned, 2/3rd is produced by your liver and only 1/3rd comes from your diet. So, I wouldn’t suggest you ban butter for life but moderation should apply,” explains Dr. Ripin Gupta, Associate Director of Cardiology, Fortis-Escorts Hospital, New Delhi.

Dr. Rupali Datta, Clinical Dietician at Fortis-Escorts Hospital in New Delhi, also gives a green signal. “Saturated fats up to 5% to 6% of the total daily calories are required as a part of your meal. Ghee, white butter and coconut oil contain saturated fats and are considered really healthy, especially for kids.”

I'm looking at a tub of margarine from the West and a stick of Indian butter. Margarine contains 528 calories per 100 grams and the pack screams 60% less fat, added Omega 3 and no trans-fat compared to butter’s 722 calories. With the new US FDA guidelines to eliminate trans-fat from all foods, most foreign brands are in the process of changing their ingredients. Does that make margarine any better? You decide. It still contains preservatives, emulsifiers, coloring agents and other unpronounceables.

Dr. Shikha Sharma puts it succinctly, “Margarine is like fake butter which is produced artificially. They may end up using a mix of low-quality oils to reach stability. Butter may have more calories yet it’s natural and healthier. If you want to add poly and mono fats to your diet, I’d suggest go for olive oil or avocado oil.”

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The sad thing is that instead of fighting the battle, some popular Indian brands have joined it to keep up with competition. You could be easily fooled with words like ‘Light’, ‘Fat Spread’ or ‘Low Fat’ often used for margarine. Look for the words ‘Pasteurized Butter’ for the real stuff. Butter will usually have a handful of ingredients like milk, salt and permitted colours. As I’ve always encouraged – read your labels, every single time.

What worries me the most is, despite growing suspicion amongst consumers, the baking and ready-to-eat industry is known for its rampant use of margarine in form of Dalda or Vanaspati because its cheap. “Since all the food scandals, people have become conscious about what their food is made of and where it comes from. Butter is perceived as pure but it’s difficult to handle as it melts easily. For best results, the temperature needs to be perfect. Margarine is easier to cook with and is more stable. I once used it to make puff pastry and it was actually crispier but it lacked flavour. It had a chemical-like aftertaste and I could feel some waxy leftovers coat my mouth. The truth is that with such aggressive commercialization, we’ve forgotten the sweet, grassy flavour of real butter or cream,” shares Food Blogger Reshmy Kurien.

CommentsI’m a fan of butter. I love the taste. I love the way it makes my food taste. Margarine can’t fulfill the needs that butter can.

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