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Published January 20, 2012, 12:00 AM

Prairie Fare: Butter vs. margarine: What’s the verdict?

“Just answer this question. Is this snack good or bad for you?” the airline passenger sitting beside me asked after learning that I am a nutrition specialist. “It depends on how much you eat,” I responded.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

“Just answer this question. Is this snack good or bad for you?” the airline passenger sitting beside me asked after learning that I am a nutrition specialist.

“It depends on how much you eat,” I responded.

“You dodged my question. Is it good or bad?” he said.

“This snack is OK in moderation. It doesn’t taste very good, though,” I said, taking a bite.

“That’s not what I meant,” he replied.

“Do you realize you are interrogating me without having me under oath?” I responded. I had learned he was an attorney just returning from taking a deposition.

He laughed and said, “OK, let’s try other foods. Butter and margarine: Are they good or bad? Don’t use the ‘m’ word this time,” he remarked.

“It depends on the kind of margarine and how much you eat. Moderation is best,” I repeated with a grin and special emphasis on the “m” word, “moderation.”

He looked at me the way my kids do when they don’t like my response.

We played this “good or bad game” for a few hundred miles. Since I was about six miles above the ground in a pressurized tube, I couldn’t escape. I don’t think I’d be a good witness in a courtroom.

The relative healthfulness of butter vs. margarine has been an ongoing controversy. It has started many debates by nutrition scientists in laboratories and consumers in grocery stores.

Butter has a long history dating to ancient times. Rationed during World War II, butter was such a desired commodity that many people kept a cow to provide butter.

Margarine’s colorful history started out colorless. Margarine was developed in 1870 in response to Napoleon’s challenge for a butter substitute. A Frenchman discovered margaric acid and used it to create his butterlike concoction. The drops of fat reminded the researcher of pearls, which in Greek are called “margarites.”

In the early 1900s, margarine was white and coloring bans were in place in 32 states. A potential law that would have made margarine pink was voted down.

Taxes were placed on yellow margarine, so “bootleg” colored margarine became popular. During the 1930s, the U.S. military was banned from using margarine for anything other than cooking. By the 1950s, the restrictions on margarine ended.

Since then, many types and brands of margarine have become available.

In 2009, each American ate, on average, about 4.9 pounds of butter and 3.7 pounds of margarine, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. Each person also consumed about 15.9 pounds of shortening and 51.9 pounds of salad oil.

Compare the types of fat you typically purchase. Margarine types vary in their nutritional content, so compare Nutrition Facts labels for saturated fat and trans fat in particular. Saturated fat is found naturally in some vegetable and animal fats.

Trans fat is formed when vegetable oils are hydrogenated to make solid or shelf- stable shortenings, margarine and oils. Trans fat is found in most fast-food french fries, in some snack foods and in some bakery goods such as cookies, pastries and cakes.

Consuming a diet high in trans fat may result in a double whammy. It may raise your LDL (bad) blood cholesterol and reduce your HDL (good) blood cholesterol.

Consider these tips when choosing the spread for your toast:

- Minimize your trans fat intake. Be a label reader. Don’t stop with the Nutrition Facts label. Check the ingredient label, too. If the ingredient list includes “partially hydrogenated oil,” there’s a good chance the food contains some trans fat. Be aware of this loophole for food manufacturers: Foods that contain less than 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving can list the amount of trans fat as zero.

- Don’t give up on your favorite foods. If you prefer butter, monitor your portion size. Keep in mind that 1 tablespoon of butter provides more than one- third of the “daily value” for saturated fat.

- If you prefer margarine or are on a special diet, use the softer spreads that have less saturated fat and trans fat. Consider trying some of the spreadable butter and oil mixtures.

- Try recipes that call for oil instead of solid shortening.

Here’s a recipe where applesauce is used to provide flavor, moisture and extra fiber. Applesauce can be used to substitute for part or most of the fat in some recipes for baked goods.


Applesauce Bran Muffins

1½ cups 100 percent bran cereal

1 cup milk

1 egg, slightly beaten

½ cup applesauce

2½ tablespoon melted butter

1 cup all-purpose flour

2½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ cup brown sugar

½ cup raisins or dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In large bowl, combine cereal and milk. In another bowl, combine egg, applesauce and melted butter. Stir into cereal mixture. Add dry ingredients and stir just until blended. Add raisins or dried cranberries and mix gently. Spray nonstick coating in muffin pans or use baking cups. Fill muffin pans or baking cups two-thirds full. Bake for about 15 minutes.

Makes 12 servings. Each serving has 150 calories, 30 grams (g) of carbohydrate, 3 g of fat, 4 g of fiber and 195 milligrams of sodium.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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