Is Margarine Safe for People With Diabetes?

What You Need to Know About Butter, Margarine and Trans Fats

| Dec 1, 2005

Nutritional recommendations always seem to be changing. One year we’re advised to switch from butter to margarine. A year later, we learn that margarine is worse for us than butter.

With all the conflicting information, it’s not surprising that many people are often confused.

Margarine and the Trans Fat Bad Rap

Margarines are notoriously high in trans fats. Once it was discovered that trans fats are as bad for you as saturated fats (if not worse), margarine got a bad rap. Manufacturers responded to these concerns by developing trans fat free margarines, but they had to replace this emulsifying ingredient with a long list of other ingredients.

But are these ingredients safe? Is butter still the better alternative?

The problem is that the body treats trans fat as if it were a saturated fat. Trans fats have adverse actions on lipid profiles because they raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and decrease HDL (“good”) cholesterol. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition also found that trans fats negatively affect plasma markers of inflammation and reduce endothelial function, effects that are associated with an increased cardiovascular disease risk.

This is particularly important for people with diabetes. Since they already have an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetics need to take precautions to ensure that all controllable aspects of health are practiced.

There is no recommended intake for trans fats; however, there is no requirement for trans fats in the diet, either, and it is suggested that our intake of trans fats be as low as possible.

Butter or Margarine?

Butter is a more natural product than margarine, composed of only one or two ingredients (cream and sometimes salt). Trans fat free margarines may have little or no hydrogenated oils, but they do contain many natural and artificial ingredients for flavoring and coloring (see below). If a very small amount of margarine or butter is used, there should be no concern. However, people should evaluate why they are using margarine and if there may be a healthier substitute, such as natural peanut butter, when they want to use a spread on a piece of bread.

For cooking, olive oil or canola oil may be better choices than margarine or butter because they contain very little saturated fat, no trans fats, and they offer some essential fatty acids, too.

The Always-Golden Rule—Portion Control

The moral of the story is that trans fat free margarines and butter are safe when consumed in small amounts. While there are more healthful alternatives for a spread like natural peanut butter, or olive or canola oils for cooking, certain foods require the use of butter or margarine (for example, many baked goods). Therefore, it is best to use only trans fat free products, limiting your intake of them and using them only when necessary.

What Are Trans Fats?

Trans fats are a type of fat that are found naturally in some foods, such as dairy products and animal products, but they are most commonly added artificially to a variety of commercial products. Manufactured trans fats are basically vegetable fats that have been changed chemically by a process known as hydrogenation.

The process of hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation takes place when food manufacturers artificially add hydrogen to unsaturated fats to provide greater stability and, ultimately, longer shelf life; hydrogenation makes liquid fats solidify at room temperature.

The advantage is that the hydrogenated fat generally has a longer shelf life, or, when added to a product such as crackers, the trans fat gives them a crisper texture.

Stick, soft spread or spray—what’s the best type of trans fat free margarine?

Trans fat free tub and squeeze margarines and spreads are likely to be lower in overall fat, saturated fats and trans fatty acids than are stick margarines or butter.

Stick margarines usually contain more trans fats to maintain stability—you should avoid these like the plague.

The benefit of trans fat free sprays, like Olivio’s new Buttery Spray formula, is that you use much less than a spread to provide the same flavor, so you’ll save even more fat and calories than if you used a spread.

Of course, spray margarines do not work for baking, for which you should use a soft-spread margarine that comes in a tub.

Ingredients Commonly Added to Trans Fat Free Margarines

Mono- and diglycerides

These are fats that act as emulsifiers and stabilizers in margarines but that comprise only a very small percentage of the overall product (typically less than 0.5 percent).

Soy lecithin

This product is derived from the soybean itself and appears to be 100 percent safe for consumption. It is typically included in both organic and no-organic margarines.

Potassium sorbate

Potassium sorbate is included in many nonorganic products as a preservative to prevent fungi and molds. There are no scientific studies suggesting its use is unhealthy, particularly in the very low doses used in manufacturing margarines.

Beta carotene

Beta carotene, found in carrots and other orange vegetables, is used to impart a yellow color to margarines and butter sprays. Beta carotene is the plant source of vitamin A and is commonly consumed in the diet. There are no safety concerns about its use in these products.

Sterols and stanols

Sterols and stanols are essential components of plant cell membranes. However, although eaten regularly in the diet, the doses consumed through plant foods are much lower than those required for health benefits. Plant sterols and stanols have been shown to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease; therefore, many companies have been fortifying foods, such as margarine, with additional sterols and stanols. In fact, the FDA has approved the following health claim for plant sterols and stanols:

“Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include at least 1.3 grams of plant sterol esters or 3.4 grams of plant stanol esters, consumed in 2 meals with other foods, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Some newer margarines such as Benecol and Take Control contain sterols and stanols. Studies using up to 25 grams of sterols and stanols have been well tolerated in humans, so the low doses recommended are not of concern with regard to safety.

Trans Fat Free Margarines

  • Benecol
  • Brummel and Brown
  • Fleischmann’s Original, Unsalted, Light and Made With Olive Oil
  • Olivio Premium Spread
  • Smart Balance
  • Smart Beat
  • Take Control
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Dec 1, 2005

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