Butter or margarine: which table spreads are best?
Finding the best spread for your bread.
Kiwis love their spreads. Every year, we churn through millions of dollars on butter and marge.
However, some spreads are better than others for your waistline and the planet. We’ve assessed 44 products to see what’s in them and calculated their health star ratings.
Chewing the fat
The main ingredient in butter and most table spreads is fat. Butter has about 80 percent fat and the table spreads in our survey ranged from 41 to 78 percent.
But not all these fats are the same. Fats and oils are comprised of fatty acids – saturated, trans, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Different oils and fats have varying levels of these fatty acids (see “All about fat”).
It’s the saturated fat, together with the energy and sodium, that influence the health star ratings for table spreads. Health star ratings assess a food on its overall nutrition – half a star to five stars (the more stars the better).
No spreads in our survey earned five stars. Eight spreads achieved four: Essentials Table Spread, Flora Light, Gold’n Canola Lite, MeadowLea Lite, Pams Lite Canola Spread, Pams Lite Olive Spread, Sunrise Table Spread and Value Table Spread.
The saturated fat content of these spreads was 12.4 percent or less and they had moderate sodium levels. That’s a lot less than regular butter, which has about 50 percent saturated fat and higher sodium so only gets half a star. The unsalted stuff had low sodium levels, but its high saturated fat content means it still only earns one star.
Butter blends – spreads that combine butter or buttermilk, softened with vegetable oil – have less saturated fat. Country Soft Lite gets three-and-a-half stars. Country Soft, Flora Buttery and Pams Buttery Spread are three-star spreads.
What about olive oil-based spreads? They ranged from two stars (Olivani Buttery) to four (Pams Lite Olive Spread).
You might be surprised the main oil in these spreads isn’t necessarily olive oil. Pams Olive Spread contained 21 percent. Other brands contained less. Other oils used were canola, palm or unspecified vegetable fats.
It’s a similar story with other spreads touting a particular oil. For example, Olivani Avocado only contains 7.5 percent avocado oil, with unspecified oils making up a third of the spread.
The good oil?
Many table spreads didn’t specify the type of oil they contained. There’s no requirement for manufacturers to disclose this information unless the oil is a characterising ingredient (such as olive oil in an olive oil spread).
Instead, you might find the catch-all “vegetable oil” in the ingredients list. There’s a good chance it could be palm oil.
Palm oil and palm kernel oil are high in saturated fat. Their production is also linked to deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, and destroying the habitat of endangered species such as the orangutan and rhino.
A 2018 study published in the journal Science estimated palm oil production also generated more greenhouse gas emissions than soybean, olive, rapeseed or sunflower oil.
To quell criticisms, the industry-led Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was set up to certify “good” oil. However, it’s been criticised because of inadequate traceability and failure to guarantee the oil that ends up in products is sustainably produced.
Supermarket home brand spreads (Essentials, Pams and Value) were upfront and listed palm oil in their ingredients.
We asked other companies to disclose what vegetable oils were in their products.
Fonterra (Anchor Original and Country Soft spreads) said palm oil is the main vegetable oil in its spreads. Goodman Fielder (MeadowLea, Olivani, Sunrise, Gold’n Canola and Tararua spreads), Upfield (Flora) and Nuttelex declined to provide the information.
The butter debate
Butter has gained favour as a “natural” option. But when it comes to making a greener choice, there’s widespread agreement we need to cut back on dairy. This is mainly due to methane emissions, use of nitrogen-containing fertilisers and effects on our waterways.
From a health perspective, the “butter is better” mantra also doesn’t stack up well.
University of Otago professor in human nutrition and medicine Jim Mann said there’s a huge body of evidence suggesting the benefits of replacing saturated fat with poly and monounsaturated fats.
“Using table spreads as a replacement for butter is one way of helping achieve this. Other options include using avocado, hummus and nut or seed butters,” Professor Mann said.
Dave Monro, Heart Foundation chief adviser food and nutrition, said the evidence is clear that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats, particularly polyunsaturated, is beneficial for the heart.
There’s a strong link between saturated fats, elevated blood cholesterol and heart disease, Monro said.
“It’s also important to remember that eating large amounts of fat isn’t good for us. All fats are energy-dense and we need to be conscious of overall fat intake in the context of a healthy diet.”
The World Health Organization recommends we get less than 10 percent of our energy intake from saturated fats.
All about fat
Saturated fat raises the total cholesterol and levels of “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol in your blood. Saturated fats can also promote blood clotting, which can lead to heart attacks or stroke. Saturated fats are found in animal fats, as well as palm and coconut oil. In butter, the fat comes from cream.
Trans fat raises total cholesterol and LDLs, and may also decrease your levels of “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Small amounts of trans fats occur naturally in butter but harmful trans fats are formed when liquid oils are hydrogenated to harden them and make them more stable to use. Most table spreads now contain less than one percent trans fats – a vast improvement on the eight percent some products contained in our previous surveys.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are “good” fats. They help lower LDLs and monounsaturates are thought to raise HDLs. Canola, avocado and olive oils are high in monounsaturates. Sunflower and soya bean oils are high in polyunsaturates.
Flora Pro-activ spreads contain plant sterols, natural substances that have a similar structure to cholesterol and trick the digestive system into absorbing less of the real stuff.
Studies report regular consumption of cholesterol-lowering spreads may reduce your “bad” cholesterol. But these products are pricier than regular spreads and you have to eat about 25g of the spread daily to get that level of benefit – the equivalent of smearing about five teaspoons on your toast.
If you’re taking medication to lower your cholesterol, check with your doctor whether including plant sterols in your diet will provide any additional benefits. These spreads give no benefits if your cholesterol levels are normal.
What’s in your table spread?
Vegetable oil: The main ingredient in most table spreads is vegetable oil. Common oils used are canola, palm and sunflower.
Water: The less fat in the table spread, the more water it contains. For some lower-fat spreads, water is the main ingredient.
Emulsifier: This is added to keep the oil and water mixed together. Butter contains lecithin, a natural emulsifier.
Salt: Salt (sodium chloride) adds flavour but too much sodium is bad for your health.
Colour and flavours: Milk fat is sometimes added to give the spread a dairy flavour and to enhance “mouthfeel” of the spread. Colour is often added to get the yellow colour we expect in a table spread.
Preservatives: These are added to prevent spoilage.
Acidity regulator: An acid, such as citric or lactic, is used to control the pH (acidity). This affects microbial growth and oxidation.
Vitamins: Vitamins A, D and E can be added. Most table spreads have added vitamins.
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