Nutrition Action Healthletter
Trans Fat Free!, Non-Hydrogenated, No Cholesterol, 75% Less Saturated Fat than Butter, 100% Less Cholesterol than Butter, 50% Less Fat and Calories than Butter and Margarine, Good Source of Vitamin E, 100% Expeller-Pressed Oils.
Whew!  Make sure you budget an extra half hour when you're shopping for margarine.  And don't forget your reading glasses, so you can plow through the small print about university studies, the American Heart Association's approval, and HDL/LDL ratios.
Better than Butter?

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 margarine’s trans fat may be even worse than butter’s 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 (they’re called spreads if they’re less than 80 percent oil) that are low in both artery-clogging fats. Here’s how to find them.

No Ordinary Margarine
Benecol Spread
Benecol and Take Control contain stanol or sterol esters, plant extracts that lower cholesterol. They’re nowhere near as powerful as statins or other drugs, but two or three tablespoons a day—that’s six to nine pats—can cut LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by about 15 percent in people who have high levels. And both brands are low enough in saturated and trans fat to earn Best Bites.

    But you can’t just throw a tub in the fridge and let the whole family help themselves. These spreads are designed for people who have been diagnosed with high cholesterol. Although there is little evidence that they can cause any harm, the Food and Drug Administration is still looking into possible adverse effects. For example, the spreads can lower beta-carotene levels, which is why the European Union and Australia require labels to say that they’re not recommended for children or pregnant or lactating women.

    Still, to play it safe, use these spreads only if you need them, and don’t exceed the recommended doses—two to three tablespoons a day.
Smart Marketing
Smart Balance Buttery Spread
  Smart Balance claims to have a “patented blend to help improve cholesterol ratio.” And company-sponsored studies conclude that if the fat in people’s diets mimics that blend (roughly equal amounts of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fat), it will lower their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raise their HDL (“good”) cholesterol. But there’s a catch.

    In the studies, most of the fat the people ate came from Smart Balance. But in the real world, people will use Smart Balance (or any other spread) as part of a diet that also gets fats, especially saturated fats, from poultry, meat, cheese, and other foods. So buying a spread with the “right balance” may not make as much sense as buying a spread that’s high in mono- or polyunsaturated fat, which will counter (or balance) the fats in a typical American diet.

    That said, Smart Balance is still a good choice. It’s just one of many.

    And Smart Balance’s “no trans fatty acids...naturally” may sound more impressive than it is. Like Promise, Smart Balance replaces trans fat with saturated fat (in this case, from palm oil). There isn’t enough palm oil to raise cholesterol, but adding palm oil is no more natural than adding lard.
 
Vitamins and Minerals
Parkay Calcium Plus
  Most spreads have vitamin A from the beta-carotene that’s used to give them a buttery color. But Promise goes one step further by adding up to 15 percent of a day’s worth of vitamin E. Parkay Calcium Plus has ten percent of a day’s vitamin E and throws in ten percent of a days calcium and 15 percent of a day’s vitamin D for good measure.

    Calcium and those other extras are only worth it if (as in these cases) they make a good spread better. You’d get that much vitamin E in a tablespoon of most oils, but few margarines. And the only places to get vitamin D—except the sun or a multi—are milk, fatty fish, or fortified foods like breakfast cereals.
 
Made with Clever Claims
Fleismann's Premium Blend
  Some margarines and spreads proudly disclose that they’re made with safflower, olive, canola, or other oils. But that doesn’t mean that eating them is equivalent to using those oils. Margarines and spreads have to contain some trans or saturated fat or they would be liquid.

   What’s more, most products are a mixture of oils. Fleischmann’s Premium Blend, for example, says “Made with Olive Oil.” But it’s also made with soybean oil. Canoleo is one of the few brands that contains only the oil it’s named after (canola).

   The bottom line: If you want to make sure what you’re getting, you’ve got to check the ingredient list, not just the amount of saturated and trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label.
 

1: Minimize Saturated-plus-Trans Fat.
That doesn’t 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). That’s 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. That’s 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 fat—enough to keep the sticks solid yet give each tablespoon no more than 2.5 grams of sat fat.

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2: Count Calories.
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.

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3: Consider the Claims.
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. You’ll have to be the judge.

Calcium. Some brands, like Parkay Calcium Plus and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Sweet Cream & Calcium, have 100 mg of calcium (ten percent of the Daily Value) in each tablespoon. It’s not worth buying a high-sat or high-trans spread just for the calcium, but if you’re 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 hasn’t set any limits on trans fat yet.

For Fat-Free Cooking. That’s the sort of claim you’ll find on PAM and other cooking sprays that come in aerosol cans. All are Best Bites because their key ingredient is (unsaturated) oil. But don’t 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 Pam’s 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, you’ll 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 PAM’s.)

    Pumps are a different story. Some—like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Spray—are 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 don’t try to spray it on your toast or you’ll end up with a soggy mess.

Lactose-free. In most cases, that simply means that the spread doesn’t contain any butter or the tiny bit of whey that manufacturers add to many margarines and spreads. That’s important if you’re a vegan or are allergic to dairy, but if you’re lactose intolerant, it doesn’t mean a thing. Notice the zero next to “Total Carbohydrates” on the label of any margarine (lactose-free or not)? That means each serving can’t have more than a half-gram of sugar. Even if all of that sugar came from lactose (the sugar in milk), it wouldn’t be enough to cause stomach problems.

Light. Half the calories is a plus if you’re like most Americans—either overweight or trying not to be.

Made with Yogurt or Buttermilk. The yogurt in Brummel & Brown’s spread may add to its creamy-but-tart flavor. But despite the label’s claim, there’s 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 don’t expect more.

Omegas. Spectrum Naturals Essential Omega Spread has six grams of omega-3 fats (from flaxseed oil) in each tablespoon. That’s impressive, since omegas not only lower cholesterol (like any polyunsaturated fat), but may help prevent heart disease by protecting the heart’s 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 wouldn’t be able to pick it up.

    The problem is that polyunsaturated fats are liquid ...and what you’ll find when you open a tub of Spectrum (no, it isn’t spoiled) is half-oil and half-spread. “Runny” doesn’t 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 don’t say a word about trans. Go figure.

Whipped. If you insist on eating butter, at least make it whipped. Adding air means there’s less room for butter...and for butter’s 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. That’s a quarter of a day’s sat fat—almost as much as you’d get in a glass of whole milk.

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Article by Jane Hurley and Bonnie Liebman

The information for this article was compiled by Beth Sumrell and Heather Jones DeMino.
Nutrition Action Healthletter Center for Science in the Public Interest December 2001 U.S. Edition 1: Minimize Saturated-plus Trans Fat. 2. Count Calories. 3. Consider the Claims. chart: the Spread Box Margarine Spreads Its Wings Subscribe Today! Customer Service