Butter and margarine review

We check out over 90 spreads and dairy blends, and pick the healthier options.
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  • Updated:1 Jan 2005

04.Choosing a spread

We’ve ranked the spreads (Table) by their percentage of saturated plus trans fats — and to make them easier to compare, we’ve divided the spreads into the following categories:

  • Basic spreads: These are the spreads that make no special claims or don’t fit into one of the other categories. They’re usually made from a blend of vegetable oils.
  • Canola spreads: Canola oil is rich in monounsaturates and also has heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. They’re about the same price as the basic spreads, averaging 30–35 cents per 100 g. And don’t be put off by the rumours circulating on the internet that canola oil is toxic — there’s no truth in them.
  • Olive oil spreads: Olive oil has acquired a certain mystique as a key ingredient of the heart-healthy ‘Mediterranean diet’, but in fact it’s only one of a number of healthy oils. It’s rich in monounsaturates, but so is canola. And although you pay a premium for most of these spreads (their average price is 67 cents per 100 g), you don’t get as much olive oil in them as you might think. OLIVE GROVE Classic Spread (‘with cholesterol free olive oil’, according to the label) has the most with 23%, followed by the much cheaper COLES FARMLAND Olive Spread with 22%.
  • Polyunsaturated spreads: These contain sunflower, flaxseed or soybean oils that are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fats. MELROSE Omega 3 Care has the least saturated and trans fats of all the spreads in this test (just 6%), but also has above average total fat and is quite expensive. Most other polyunsaturated spreads cost around 50 cents per 100 g.

There are no strong health reasons for choosing one of these types over another. As far as your heart’s concerned, the overriding consideration is to avoid saturated and trans fats. But there’s one more type of spread that claims to have a particular health function:

  • Cholesterol-lowering spreads: These claim to contain ‘natural plant sterols’ that lower cholesterol absorption — and the scientific evidence is quite strong that plant sterols work. They really can lower the level of harmful LDL cholesterol in your blood by more than 10%. But you’d need to eat at least 25 g of the spread each day to get that level of benefit — just smearing the occasional slice of toast with one of these spreads won’t make much difference. FLORA Pro-activ Light gives you the most plant sterols for the least saturated and trans fats.

    Unfortunately plant sterols also lower the absorption of beta-carotene, which forms vitamin A in the body. So if you eat these products a lot, it’s a good idea to include an additional daily serve of yellow or orange vegetables and fruits.

    And these products aren’t a substitute for cholesterol-lowering medication. If in doubt, get medical advice.

For full comparative information for each brand about:

  • fat composition,
  • kilojoules and
  • salt content,

see Table.

And for a quick overview of the star performers go to Healthy choices.

Can I cook with low-fat spreads?

Probably not. Check the total fat content — if it’s less than about 60% the spread’s likely to be unsuitable for making cakes, scones or pastry. It’s also likely to splatter too much if you try to fry with it.

For baking you can use one of the spreads that has more fat overall but is still low in saturated and trans fats (such as I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S NOT BUTTER). And for frying, simply use a small quantity of vegetable oil.


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