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I wonder if you could help settle a family debate. Do you use real butter, half-butter-half-vegetable-fat spreads, or olive oil-based spreads...or what? My mum will only buy real butter, and she slaps it on pretty thick. Subsequently, she has high cholesterol. She's not anywhere near overweight, and otherwise her diet's not bad - plenty of fruit and veggies and hardly any pre-packaged convenience foods. So...I blame the butter.
My sister came to visit me and was horrified when I produced a tub of half-butter-half-vegetable-fat "spreadable butter" for our toast. "Don't you know they're full of crap?" she cried! So what's a girl to do? What do you do in the Casual Kitchen?
This is a provocative question, mainly because so much of the science and health conclusions out there simply aren't clear. In fact, do readers remember (I think it was back in the late 80s/early 90s) a widely publicized study that claimed margarine was healthier for you than butter--and then shortly thereafter a different and equally well-publicized study came out and claimed the exact opposite?
Thanks for nothing guys.
In recent years, health experts have shifted the debate somewhat. Rather than helping us make a Morton's fork of a choice between butter or margarine, they now caution us from consuming excess trans fats. Of course, trans fats tend to show up more in margarine and other hydrogenated vegetable oils. Thus that's a strike against manufactured vegetable oil based spreads.
Then again, now that limiting your intake of trans fats is standard health advice, many manufacturers have reformulated their spreads to reduce--and in some cases eliminate--trans fats.
Once again, thanks for nothing. I still don't know which is better.
Now, with butter, we have a different problem. Butter contains very small amounts of trans fats, but there is some (mixed) evidence that the specific types of trans fats in butter are actually good for you. However, butter also contains cholesterol, which isn't in hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Confused yet? I'll confuse you more--because there isn't always a connection between the cholesterol you ingest and cholesterol levels in your blood. All of us have that annoying friend or family member who eats all the butter and egg yolks she wants and yet still has great cholesterol numbers. And my wife, despite her steady diet of oatmeal, exercise and red wine, has always had borderline bad cholesterol numbers.
What do we do here at Casual Kitchen? Well, as readers well know, we are true omnivores: we eat everything, but we eat nothing to excess (uh, with the exception of dark chocolate). Thus, we try to keep our fat intake at reasonable levels, and we try to keep our intake of hydrogenated oils at a very bare minimum.
And I'll confess in the interests of full disclosure, I have a bit of a personal bias against manufactured fats. The idea of a fat that's been deliberately modified so that it remains solid at room temperature, and the idea of putting something like that in my body--and later having it possibly floating around in my arteries... I mean, if I think about this too much I kind of lose my appetite.
Therefore, when we cook, we use olive oil. When we bake, we try to bias our ingredients towards butter. When it comes to "butter-like" spreads, we pretty much never use them. Instead, we try to cook and eat foods that taste great by themselves, and those kinds of foods ideally shouldn't need butter or butter-like spreads to taste better.
Last, my biggest confession of all--and proof that there's not an ounce of food absolutism here at Casual Kitchen, ever. On occasion, we will happily use hydrogenated oils--a textbook example being Laura's brilliantly perfect apple pie crust, which simply handles best with Crisco. Then again, in 2007, Crisco reformulated their shortening too, and they've now eliminated almost all of the trans fats from their product.
Hmmm... one more slice of pie for me!
So how do you know whether butter is better or manufactured spreads are better? Well, the short answer is, neither is good for you if eaten to excess. But likewise, neither will kill you if eaten in moderation.
And that, I think, is the real answer. Eat what you like, but please do so in moderation.
Readers, what is your take on the butter vs butter-like spread debate? How do you balance health concerns with taste? Share your thoughts!
Trans Fat Fight Claims Butter as a Victim (New York Times)
Trans Fat is Double Trouble For Your Heart Health (Mayo Clinic)
Natural Trans Fats Have Health Benefits, New Study Shows (Science Daily)
Consumer Reports Weighs In On New Crisco (Consumer Reports)
Trans fat (Wikipedia)
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