Butter

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Yup, I’m a dietitian and I love butter!  It’s not just the taste and smell it’s also the way it feels in my mouth.  Butter is simply delicious and seems to make just about everything taste better. 

Issues

The only thing I don’t like about butter is the high saturated fat content.  Too much in the diet might raise your LDL level.  High LDL levels are strongly linked to a higher risk of heart disease - the #1 cause of death for adults in the United States.

Although butter contains cholesterol, I am not as concerned about its content because:

1.  The amount in one tablespoon is 30 mg – about 10% of the 300 mg daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA) for people without heart disease.  For those of you with diagnosed heart disease, one tablespoon of butter is 15% of the 200 mg daily limit recommended by the AHA.

2.  Dietary cholesterol has a much weaker effect on blood cholesterol levels than saturated fat or trans fats.    

When I Use Butter

I use pure butter in meals for special occasions and in treats that I indulge in a couple of times a month.  When I bake for special occasions, I use butter in recipes that call for it. These special occasions are infrequent and the portion size is typically limited.

On a more regular basis, I use butter in small amounts as called for in recipes from healthier cookbooks (e.g. Cooking Light).  The total amount of saturated fat from butter used in this way is typically very small – usually 1-2 grams or less per serving.

Butter vs. Margarine

I often hear people exclaim very confidently that butter is healthy and certainly healthier than using margarine.  I don’t agree that butter is healthy but I do think it is healthier than stick margarine.  Stick margarine is a solid due to a very unhealthy ingredient:  partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (or trans fats).  Intake of trans fats is linked to two changes that are diametrically opposed to heart health – higher LDL levels and lower HDL levels.  Ideally, intake of commercially produced trans fats should be 0 grams, although the AHA recommends an upper limit of less than 1% of your total calories in a day.  Just one tablespoon of stick margarine provides 3 grams of trans fats – too high for any intake under 3000 calories.

It is important to note that there are many margarine and butter spreads on the market that contain no hydrogenated oils whatsoever and are lower in saturated fat than pure butter.  For instance, one tablespoon of pure butter contains 7 grams of saturated fat whereas the same amount of Land O’ Lakes Light Butter with Canola Oil contains only 2 grams. This is a significant difference per serving when you consider the AHA’s recommendation to consume less than 7% total calories from saturated fat.  To put that into grams, see the table below.

Calorie level AHA Goal: saturated fat less than 7% total calories AHA Goal: trans fat less than 1% total calories
1200 < 9 grams < 1.3 gram
1500 < 12 grams < 1.7 grams
1800 < 14 grams < 2 grams
2000 < 16 grams < 2.2 grams
2500 < 19 grams < 2.8 grams
3000 < 23 grams < 3.3 grams

If you want to start experimenting with soft spreads, then start by looking at the ingredient list.  If there are any partially hydrogenated oils, then simply put it back on the shelf and pick another brand.  Because of an odd quirk in our labeling law, products with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can be listed as 0 grams.  Manufacturers can then advertise the product as “trans fat free.”  If you eat several different types of products that just pass under the 0.5 gram level, then you could easily be consuming more than 1% of your total calories from trans fats. 

What About Lard and Shortening?

Per tablespoon, lard is actually lower in saturated fat (5 grams) and cholesterol (12 mg) compared to the same amount of butter.  Although you wouldn’t simply replace butter with lard for taste reasons, you could start using lard again for recipes that have traditionally called for it.

Vegetable shortenings, even if advertised as “trans fat free” typically have some partially hydrogenated oils in them.  If you can find an affordable brand that contains no partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list, then buy that if you making vegetarian foods.  Unlike partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, fully hydrogenated oils are typically free of trans fats.

What About the French?

Most of us are aware of the “French Paradox.”  Despite having a much higher intake of total fat and saturated fat, France has a much lower incidence of heart disease compared to the United States and other non-Mediterranean countries.  The French consume most of their saturated fat intake from butter, cheese, and meat products.  They also consume, consistently, a lot more red wine than Americans.  It is hypothesized that resveratrol in red wine is highly protective against heart disease.  As a general rule, heart disease is lower in most Mediterranean countries.

Concluding Remarks

I wouldn’t go hog-wild with butter in the hope that if the French can do it, you can too and still avoid heart disease.  If you want to mimic the French, then I recommend that you try adopting their complete lifestyle, not just the butter habit. 

Hope you enjoyed this post.  Please comment – I enjoy reading them!

Best,

Kathy

Katherine Isacks, Registered Dietitian, LLC

Resources

American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada.  Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada:  Dietary Fatty Acids. JADA. 2007;107: 1599-1611.  Available at: http://www.eatright.org/About/Content.aspx?id=8353 Accessed February 2010.

American Heart Association.  Defining and setting national goals for cardiovascular health promotion and disease reduction.  Circulation. 2010;121:586-613.  Available at: http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/121/4/586  Accessed February 2010.

American Heart Association.  Know your fats.  Available at: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=532   Accessed February 2010.

AskExtension.org.  Butter or margarine which one is better for my health?  Available at: http://www.askextension.org/questions/133/Butter+or+margarine---Which+one+is+better+for+my+health%3F  Accessed February 2010.

Ferrières, Jean.  The French paradox:  lessons for other countries.  Heart. 2004;90:107-111. Available at:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1768013/  Accessed February 2010.

Harvard Health Beat.  Butter vs. margarine.  Available at: http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/HEALTHbeat_062106.htm  Accessed February 2010.

Yale New Haven Hospital.  Not all Fats are Created Equal.  Available at: http://www.ynhh.org/online/nutrition/advisor/fats.html  Accessed February 2010.

5 Responses

  1. Lillian
    Dear Kathy, What about the "I can't believe it's not butter" products, or the olive oil fake butter products? Are they okay?
  2. Dear Lillian, Last I checked, "I can't believe it's not butter" DID contain partially hydrogenated oils. However, products can change quickly so you should check the ingredient list to see if it still does. A lot of the olive oil spreads are free of partially hydrogenated oils but you need to check the brand you are planning to buy to make sure. If I have time, I might go to Whole Foods or one of our natural grocers today and check some brands and then post them later today. Thanks for reading my blog!
  3. Dear Katherine, Our family loves reading your blog. They are so readable and clear. Could you suggest some ways we can reduce cholesterol. We are older folks, wth healthy diets and some exercise. What are we doing wrong? Thank you.
  4. Gigi
    Did you know that a Harvard review analyzed the data from the multitude of studies out there on saturated fat and heart disease? They found only two studies that were able to make a "significant positive association" between the two. And only one study that showed polyunsaturated oils (like canola, safflower, sunflower) to be protective against heart disease. Please read Chapter 5 of Michael Pollan's book "In Defense of Food" for more on this subject. The AHA, vegetable oil industry and even our own government have been spreading misinformation about dietary fat for over 40 years. I am joining with Michael Pollan to start spreading the truth.
  5. katherineb89
    Actually, the Harvard review states that low fat, low cholesterol diets aren't quite what they're cracked up to be. It does say to limit saturated (and trans) fat. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-full-story/index.html The Harvard website also promotes the consumption of polyunsaturated oils. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/2010-releases/saturated-fat-polyunsaturated-fat-cut-heart-disease-risk.html I'd take the first article with a grain of salt because they say nothing about how portion sizes have ballooned over the years, not to mention the increased consumption of processed foods and the spread of sedentary lifestyles. I'd say those factors are far bigger determinants over North America's spreading waistlines than eating less saturated fat. (Fats do provide more energy per gram than carbs or proteins: 9cal/g vs 4cal/g). Our fear of food likely factors into this as well.