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What's the Spread on Butter?


Cardiac disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. More than 7 million people have had a heart attack and more than 6 million experience have angina (chest pain). Another 11 million have some other type of cardiovascular disease including congestive heart failure, stroke, or heart defects. Every minute someone dies from a heart attack or some other coronary event. 

What do we do to decrease the incidence of heart disease in our families? Genetics is certainly one risk factor that we cannot control, but we can control diet and exercise. Exercise, although challenging to fit into our busy lifestyles, is easy to understand, yet, at times, is difficult to maintain. Diet is not as simple to understand with all the conflicting information that is in the media. Butter versus margarine is one of those controversies. Which is better, butter or margarine? 

Well, it depends. There are two types of fat in the diet that can increase the risk for heart disease and should be avoided as much as possible. They are saturated fat and trans fat. Saturated fat is anything that becomes solid at room temperature. Saturated fat includes anything that comes from an animal such as meat, whole milk and whole milk dairy products (yogurt, cheese, ice cream, sour cream), butter, lard, cream, and half and half. Coconut oil is also a saturated fat. Of course, there are alternatives such as skim milk, nonfat yogurt, and fat free sour cream. Reduced fat ice cream or cheese and lean meat can be consumed in small quantities. 

Trans fat is a little trickier. Years ago, when food scientists and manufacturers realized that butter is not a “healthy” fat, they attempted to take a “healthy” fat such as vegetable oil and make it a solid at room temperature. In doing this, the chemical process called hydrogenation created trans fats. After much research, the medical community realized that people who ate margarine and other trans fat were still linked to cardiac disease. In January 2006, the US government required that food manufacturers include trans fat on their labels. They also decided that foods with less than 0.5 grams or trans fat per serving were allowed to list trans fat as zero on their Nutrition Facts labels. If two tablespoons of a “trans-free” spread contains “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” oil, 1 gram of trans fat is consumed and this is not trivial. The recommendation for people with heart disease is 1 gram or less of “unhealthy” fat (saturated plus trans) per tablespoon. The acceptable range for the rest of the population is about 1.5 grams or less of “unhealthy” fat. 

The chart below lists Promise margarine as an “acceptable” margarine, especially because of the small quantity that is served at schools. It is a better choice than butter in this quantity and is available for use at restaurants and schools because of the individual packets. When cooking at home, olive or canola oil, which are monounsaturated fats, are among the “healthiest” choices. Monounsaturated fats have been know to lower the “bad” (LDL’s) cholesterol and increase the “good” (HDL’s) cholesterol when used in place of saturated or trans fats. Benecol and Take Control, if the taste is desirable, are the best choices for spreads but can be difficult to cook with. Benecol and Take Control are high in plant chemicals and actually may help lower (LDL) cholesterol by 14% if consumed in the recommended quantities on the label. It is best to use light (trans fat free) tub margarine with 5 grams of fat or less or liquid oil in place of butter or stick margarine. 

Other foods that can contain trans fat are commercial baked products such as crackers, pastries, cookies, and cakes, frozen foods such as French fries, frozen dinners, pizza, pies, and ice cream, snack foods such as chips, and other commercial foods such as instant packages of rice, “starter” meals, prepared gravies, sauces, and instant mashed potatoes. 

This information was taken from the National Institute of Health, American Heart Association, and the Cardiac Rehab Program at Catholic Medical Center. Written by Susan Sheehy, RD LD. 


  • (1 tablespoon) Smart Beat
  • Fleischmann’s Light
  • Benecol or Benecol Light
  • Take Control or Take Control Light
  • Spectrum’s Naturals
  • Blue Bonnet Light or Homestyle
  • Brummel and Brown Made with Yogurt
  • Country Crock Light, Plus Calcium & Vitamins, Plus Yogurt or Whipped Easy Squeeze
  • I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter – Light, Calcium or Squeeze
  • Move Over Butter Parkay – Light or Calcium
  • Promise Light
  • Olivio with olive oil
  • Spectrum Essentials with Omega 3
  • ALSO ACCEPTABLE (1.5 grams or less of saturated plus trans)
  • Smart Balance Light or Light with Fax Oil
  • Country Crock
  • Fleischmann’s with olive oil, tub or squeeze or original
  • Parkay Original – tub or squeeze
  • Promise Canola Harvest – regular or with calcium

If Butter is a must…. Land O’ Lakes Light Butter with Canola Oil (has less than 2 grams of saturated plus trans fat