TV chefs lay it on thick about butter's virtues, but the facts haven't changed

by Jennifer Bowden / 14 February, 2017

Photo/Shutterstock

Butter fans reason that it is more natural than ­margarine, so must be the healthier option. But there’s more to this debate than meets the eye.

For decades, nutritional scientists have recommended we replace butter, a rich source of undesirable saturated fats, with vegetable-derived oils containing healthier, unsaturated fats.

However, celebrity food shows and the trend towards eating more natural products have led to a resurgence in butter demand. Dairy co-operative Fonterra has seized on the change with renewed promotion of butter, and Lewis Road Creamery and Westgold New Zealand have recently launched premium butter products.

Sales are certainly leaping ahead in Australia, too. According to Roy Morgan Research, butter last year overtook margarine as Australians’ spread of choice.

Read more: An oils and fats expert busts four anti-margarine myths

Ongoing media debate about the health benefits or otherwise of butter versus margarine isn’t making matters any clearer for consumers. Last June, for instance, journal PLOS ONE published the results of a review by researchers from Tufts University in the US, which found butter consumption was “only weakly associated with total mortality, not associated with cardiovascular disease and slightly inversely associated (protective) with diabetes”.

Scientist Laura Pimpin said: “Even though people who eat more butter generally have worse diets and lifestyles, it seemed to be pretty neutral overall.”

That suggested butter may be a “middle-of-the-road” food, she said. So, healthier than the sugar or starch of white bread or potato on which butter is commonly spread and which have been linked to higher risk of diabetes and heart disease, but “a worse choice than many margarines and cooking oils” that are rich in healthy fats such as soybean, canola, flaxseed, and extra virgin olive oils, and which would probably lower risk compared with butter or refined grains, starches and sugars.

Yet news headlines largely missed Pimpin’s clear ranking of butter as a “worse choice” than margarine and vegetable oils in the health stakes. Time magazine, for example, wrote that, “the case for eating butter just got stronger”.

Mainstream news reports also missed the fact that the study didn’t specifically compare butter with olive oil or margarine in terms of disease risk, as was pointed out in Nutrition News, a Harvard school of public health publication. By default, the Harvard title wrote, that turned it into a study of how butter affected chronic-disease risk as compared with the rest of a typical Western diet containing a variety of healthy and unhealthy foods such as refined breads, soft drinks, processed foods and red meat.

In other words, the Tufts’ study found butter was as unhealthy as a standard Western diet of largely processed foods.

In contrast, a 2015 study ­published in the Journal of the ­American College of Cardiology assessed the effect of replacing energy from saturated fat with equivalent energy from ­polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats or carbohydrates from whole grains and found a 25%, 15%, and 9% lower risk of heart disease, respectively.

It also found that swapping 5% of saturated-fat energy for the same amount of refined carbohydrates and sugars did not alter coronary disease risk, reinforcing the point that saturated-fat-laden butter is as unhealthy as a diet full of refined carbohydrates and sugar.

Butter may require less processing than margarine, but it is a less-healthy choice than vegetable-derived oils including margarines. If health is a priority, choose plant-based oils and margarines.

This article was first published in the January 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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