A dollop, a curl, a lavish swath sizzling in your pan. Butter. Can you smell it? Despite the newly found butter happiness, seemingly conflicting advice on the matter leaves many still feeling literally eh…fried?

On the one hand the ‘butter is better’ mantra is buttressed by the LCHF (Low Carb High Fat) diet movement.  Associated practices such as adding butter to cfresh butter curls in dishoffee and using plenty of butter during food preparation, are right up the alley of stern butter lovers.

On the other hand,  there are still those who approach this slippery issue with more caution and remain not fully swayed by the current “butter- on- both-sides-as-long-as-it-is-not-bread” approach.  Years of exposure to well channeled marketing messages from margarine manufacturers, advice from health professionals and perhaps personal experience regarding the effects that too much butter has had on their girths as well as a shot of fear are prohibiting many from sinking their teeth in deeper.

It is indeed fact that in the past decades,  lots of money has been spent to promote the use of so-called polyunsaturated margarine. The extent of this is far reaching.  In some countries,  promotion of  margarine are part of nutrition education programmes. In South Africa, promotion of margarine has been accompanied by e.g. free cholesterol testing, sponsored seminars and congresses and substantial research grants. Who does not like ‘free stuff’?

My personal approach to this issue resolves around the following:

The composition of butter, unlike margarine,  is not static and will be influenced by external factors. Feed,  breed and the production season as well as animal husbandry practices influences the composition of butter. When we drill down, we find that fatty acid composition – in other words which type of fats – is but one factor that has to be considered. Hormones naturally present and hormone disruptors as a result of e.g. pesticide and herbicide contamination, are but two other matters to consider.

The tub of margarine comes with its own surprises too. You will find more than just ‘poly-unsaturated-heart-healthy-goodness’ inside…contrary to what the marketing messages would like to lead you to believe.

Firstly, potential ‘health’ benefits associated with margarine would only be applicable to the soft spread tub margarine. Brick margarine contains almost as much saturated or so called ‘bad’ fat as you would find in butter.

Of equal importance, are the type of fats used to produce margarine. The oils used to make margarine will vary depending on availability and naturally cost. In other words, the raw materials used are not always the same. However, the oils chosen are usually high in a specific type of fat called Omega 6.

I’ll explain quickly: Omega 6 fat, like its cousin Omega 3, are essential fats and has to be included in our diet as our bodies are unable to produce them. However, when the ratio between these two are skewed toward more Omega 6 fats, we have trouble!  Too much Omega 6 drives inflammation! Inflammation is at the heart of most metabolic conditions such as obesity, heart disease and the rise in auto immune disorders such as arthritis.

It is indisputable – modern foods that rely on modern production methods provide too much Omega 6 and too little Omega 3 – the latter being found predominantly in oily fish and certain nuts and seeds.

Closer scrutiny of the margarine tub (that is if you can read the small print) will show you that most margarines contain as much as 10 times the amount of Omega 6 fat than Omega 3 fat. The ideal ratio is 1:1. 

Yes, the ‘heart friendly’ product may live up to verified claims that it contains less  saturated fats and  addition of active ingredients such as plant sterols and stanols will indeed lower cholesterol levels.  However, health encompasses more than measurable cholesterol levels and  I am not convinced that using the product is necessarily an overall healthier food choice.

Cells communicate with each other in our bodies.

Cells communicate with each other in our bodies.

Emerging evidence suggest that the ‘man-made’ fat structures found in products such as margarine, made by means of the chemical processes (including inter-esterification), might, over time, cause changes in cellular structures that could alter cell signalling – or the way in which cell communicate with each other. This influences metabolic signalling which are involved in e.g. insulin resistance and inflammation. The effect of these changes may only be seen over time. Your cholesterol values and heart health parameters might put a smile on your doctor’s face but in actual fact, over time, these fats will cause more insulin resistance and subsequent health related effects such as weight loss difficulty.

This delayed effect, the over-supply of Omega 6 fats and the fact that I seldom recommend that people use any ‘altered’ – fat product since these are usually void of the important co-factors (e.g. vitamins and anti-oxidants) that make them healthful –  makes it very difficult for me to recommend the use of margarine. In my opinion, oils should be oils so to speak and should only be used as such – in their liquid form. 

You might think now: that leaves me between the devil and the deep blue sea!? More butter is not necessarily better and neither is margarine! Indeed, perhaps it is better to  focus on cold pressed nut and seed oils and unprocessed food alternatives such as avocado.

However, since I am pragmatic in my decision making about nutrition matters for myself, my own family as well as patients, my recommendation regarding the butter issue is as follows:

Remember, real butter is in actual fact a ‘scarce’ product. The bigger picture, i.e. the impact each individual’s needs and demands has on sustainable food production and our environment should naturally also be taken into account. This then begs the question:  should butter not be used accordingly – thus sparingly, regardless of the individual’s motivation behind the use?

Vintage portrait of cow on pasture. Animal face photo photographed in outdoor

It takes  5 litres of cows milk  to make 500 g of butter. That’s a lot of milk. I always ask patients this question: if you had to make the butter yourself,  would you consume dollops in your coffee?

When we consume less of something – using it sparingly, it also allows us to buy better quality. (That is naturally except if you have unlimited resources.)  Look out for butter that has been made using traditional methods or investigate small producers that use organic production methods. Sparse use will also minimise your exposure to the hormones naturally found in dairy fat as well as hormone disruptors that might lurk there.

Don’t want to fiddle with the butter dish? Or are you one of those people that get very annoyed if the butter is too hard to spread? A practical way to enhance your butter-experience without reverting to the convenience of a soft margarine spread is to make your own soft butter spread. You can have the taste of butter AND the goodness of a cold pressed plant oil. This two-flies-with-one-swath approach really makes health sense -regardless of the angle you are taking!

Try my BetterEat™-butter spread – it’s tasty, easy to make and cost effective. Because it is easier to spread or use, it is also easier to use just the amount you need.

The benefits include:

  • No artificial ingredients
  • No preservatives
  • No chemical process involved
  • Favourable fatty acid profile

BetterEat Butter Mix

Ingredients

200 g salted butter

150 ml Olive oil or cold pressed High Oleic Sunflower oil or Canola Oil (without TBHQ)

A blender

A pinch of sat

Method

Leave the butter outside the fridge till soft at room temperature.

Blend the butter using a blender or ‘stick’-blender til soft and smooth.

Whilst still blending, add the oil bit by bit to allow the mixture to blend fully.

Refrigerate and use instead of butter or margarine as a spread or to prepare foods.