Margarine labels may have so many more claims per square-inch because manufacturers have a reputation to repair. After a rocky start as a butter substitute, margarine spent a couple of decades basking in its image as a healthy alternative to butter. Then came the news that margarines trans fat may be even worse than butters saturated fat, which threw millions of confused consumers back into the butter camp.
Time to jump ship again. Supermarket shelves now offer dozens of margarines (theyre called spreads if theyre less than 80 percent oil) that are low in both artery-clogging fats. Heres how to find them.
That doesnt mean you have to switch to a fat-free margarine. In fact, unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated ones, are good for you. They counteract saturated and trans fats by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol. As long as only about 30 percent of the fat in your spread is sat-plus-trans, it should help lower your cholesterol. Less than 20 percent is even better. The trick is that labels are often silent about trans fat, even when companies know how much is in their spreads.
Our chart lumps saturated and trans fat together, even though some studies suggest that trans is even worse. Unlike saturated fat, trans may lower HDL (good) cholesterol, make it harder for arteries to dilate, and raise the risk of diabetes (see Oct. 2001, p. 12). Thats why only one of our Best Bites or Honorable Mentions had more than half a gram of trans fat. (Canoleo margarine, which is high in all fats, has nearly a gram of trans.)
Note that no stick margarines are Best Bites. Most have more trans or sat fat than tubs. Thats what helps them keep their shape. Exception: Several years ago, Promise replaced the trans fat in all of its margarines with a small amount of saturated fatenough to keep the sticks solid yet give each tablespoon no more than 2.5 grams of sat fat.
Thanks to their polyunsaturated fat, fattier Best Bites should lower your cholesterol more than low-fat or fat-free ones. But you pay a price for that fat. Each tablespoon of a full-fat margarine has about 100 calories. A light spread, on the other hand, has 40 to 50 calories, and a fat-free spread has no more than five.
So weigh your needs. If you can afford 100 calories with each swipe of the butter knife, go for a fattier spread. If not, go lower. A tablespoon of Smart Beat, one of our long-time favorites, clocks in at just 20 calories.
Just remember: less fat means more water in your spread, so you may not be able to use it for baking or sautéing or on hot toast. Many labels on spreads contain a warning like not recommended for frying, but you may have to hunt for the small print.
Some deserve attention; others you can ignore:
Buttery Taste. We found remarkable inconsistency in how our staff rated the flavor of our Best Bites and Honorable Mentions. Youll have to be the judge.
Calcium. Some brands, like Parkay Calcium Plus and I Cant Believe Its Not Butter Sweet Cream & Calcium, have 100 mg of calcium (ten percent of the Daily Value) in each tablespoon. Its not worth buying a high-sat or high-trans spread just for the calcium, but if youre choosing among Best Bites and Honorable Mentions like these, calcium might give one brand an edge.
Cholesterol-free. Ignore. Nearly all margarines are cholesterol-free. The question is whether they will raise your bad cholesterol, and that depends on how much saturated and trans fat they contain. To avoid misleading people, the FDA prohibits cholesterol-free claims on foods with more than two grams of sat fat, but it hasnt set any limits on trans fat yet.
For Fat-Free Cooking. Thats the sort of claim youll find on PAM and other cooking sprays that come in aerosol cans. All are Best Bites because their key ingredient is (unsaturated) oil. But dont be fooled.
Your dish will only be fat-free if you follow the directions on the can. In some cases, that means spraying for a third of a second. When we asked the manufacturers how they came up with that ridiculously small number, one told us that their test kitchen found that a one-second spray was enough for three omelettes, so they divided by three.
The question is: For how long can you spray before the calories and fat start adding up? According to Pams Web site, a one-second spray has seven calories, which means that it delivers nearly one gram of fat. So if you spray for about six seconds, youll be getting a teaspoon of oil. (Other brands refused to give us information for a one-second spray, but their numbers are probably similar to PAMs.)
Pumps are a different story. Somelike I Cant Believe Its Not Butter Sprayare fat-free not just because you use so little, but because they have about as much water as oil. That makes it easier to keep the calories down. Just dont try to spray it on your toast or youll end up with a soggy mess.
Lactose-free. In most cases, that simply means that the spread doesnt contain any butter or the tiny bit of whey that manufacturers add to many margarines and spreads. Thats important if youre a vegan or are allergic to dairy, but if youre lactose intolerant, it doesnt mean a thing. Notice the zero next to Total Carbohydrates on the label of any margarine (lactose-free or not)? That means each serving cant have more than a half-gram of sugar. Even if all of that sugar came from lactose (the sugar in milk), it wouldnt be enough to cause stomach problems.
Light. Half the calories is a plus if youre like most Americanseither overweight or trying not to be.
Made with Yogurt or Buttermilk. The yogurt in Brummel & Browns spread may add to its creamy-but-tart flavor. But despite the labels claim, theres not enough to supply the goodness of yogurt, if by that the company means vitamins, protein, and active cultures. Ditto for brands made with sweet cream buttermilk. Enjoy the flavor, but dont expect more.
Omegas. Spectrum Naturals Essential Omega Spread has six grams of omega-3 fats (from flaxseed oil) in each tablespoon. Thats impressive, since omegas not only lower cholesterol (like any polyunsaturated fat), but may help prevent heart disease by protecting the hearts rhythm. So far, studies on people have only found protection from the omega-3 fats in fish oil. If there were a link with flax, the food is so rarely eaten that researchers probably wouldnt be able to pick it up.
The problem is that polyunsaturated fats are liquid ...and what youll find when you open a tub of Spectrum (no, it isnt spoiled) is half-oil and half-spread. Runny doesnt begin to capture it.
Trans-free. Important. It means that a tablespoon of the spread has no more than half a gram of trans. For some reason, labels of a few trans-free spreads dont say a word about trans. Go figure.
Whipped. If you insist on eating butter, at least make it whipped. Adding air means theres less room for butter...and for butters 11 grams of fat and eight grams of sat fat in each tablespoon. Even so, a tablespoon of whipped butter will still set you back seven grams of fat, five of them saturated. Thats a quarter of a days sat fatalmost as much as youd get in a glass of whole milk.
Article by Jane Hurley and Bonnie Liebman
The information for this article was compiled by Beth Sumrell and Heather Jones DeMino.