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Butter vs. margarine

March 31, 1998|By KATE COLEMAN

by Joe Crocetta / staff photographer

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butter or margarine

A few years ago, television commercials told us "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature."

The shtick was that the margarine being advertised tasted so much like butter, even Mother Nature thought it was the "real thing" - which is what the dairy people like to call it.

What's important in the butter vs. margarine debate is to make sure you're not fooling yourself.

Fat should be kept to 30 percent of the total calories you consume each day, according to Edith Hogan, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for American Dietetic Association, an organization of 70,000 food and nutrition experts.

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Mother Nature can get pretty complicated. Who wants to think about organic chemistry and the molecular makeup of what's flavoring their alfredo sauce?

But here's the skinny: All fats are made up of a mixture of three types of fatty acids:

* If saturated fatty acids are dominant, as in butter and beef fat, the fat is called saturated.

* Fats from a vegetable source, such as those in margarine, salad and cooking oils, are called polyunsaturated.

* Olive and canola oil are considered monounsaturated.

"Where the fat comes from doesn't make that much difference," according to Jeanne Jones, a consultant on menu planning, recipes and new-product development for hotels and spas. Her syndicated column on light cooking runs in Lifestyle Sundays.

Jones likes the taste of butter better, so that's what she uses in her recipes. She also doesn't like margarines that are made with other combined fats, often taken from highly saturated coconut or palm kernal oil. Butter is Jones' choice and the choice of an increasing number of people interested in fine food and good cooking, Hogan says.

The amount and type of fat you eat has a greater effect on your level of blood cholesterol than does the amount of cholesterol you eat, according to University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

Heart attacks can occur when cholesterol - a soft, fat-like substance that makes up much of the plaque found in diseased arteries - is deposited inside arteries, obstructing the flow of blood.

Saturated fats tend to raise the blood cholesterol level; substituting polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats for saturated fats helps lower the level of blood cholesterol.

People turned to margarine as a way of reducing the saturated fat of butter.

Controversy arose in 1994 when Harvard researchers concluded that trans fatty acids, a by-product of hydrogenating margarine - the process of making the vegetable oil more solid - act more like saturated fats to raise LDL or "bad" cholesterol and lower HDL or "good" cholesterol, which seems to clear cholesterol out of your system.

The jury is still out on this case.

"Science is evolutionary, not revolutionary," Hogan says.

But you don't need a degree in biochemical engineering to avoid a heart attack.

"The bottom line is moderation," says Lynn F. Little, extension educator, family and consumer sciences, University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

We all should be eating more fruits and vegetables - five servings a day, and there are plenty of low-fat options available on grocery store shelves.

Hogan says to go ahead and enjoy a little butter if you prefer the taste. Just make sure you watch your total fat intake and balance it with a variety of healthful foods.

Mother Nature probably would agree.

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