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The Healthy Food Guide team believe that making small diet and lifestyle changes brings the best long-term gains. We look at the science behind the headlines and promote a balanced way of eating.

Are spreads any healthier than butter – and what’s in them?

BECAUSE BUTTER SEEMS a more natural product, with a shorter ingredients list, many people assume it’s the healthier choice. ‘Butter is made from milk fat, while margarine is derived from plant oils and fats,’ explains HFG nutritionist Amanda Ursell. But the main type of fat in butter is saturated and overall it contains far more fat than most spreads.

WHAT IS MARGARINE?

 

By law, a product labelled as margarine must have a similar fat content to butter and contain a minimum of 80% fat. Most of the products we see on the shelves these days are actually called spreads, so by law they can contain anything between 10% and 90% fat! In reality, most contain much less fat than you’d find in butter (typically 60% or less), and low-fat spreads can have as little as 19% fat. Some are also fortified with nutrients such as vitamins or cholesterol-lowering plant sterols. Check the labels for the percentage of fat, plus the amount of total fat and saturates in 1tsp – the amount you use on a slice of bread.

Spreads, on the other hand, may be manufactured and may contain preservatives, but they’re based on natural, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils, such as olive, sunflower or soya, which we commonly use in cooking.

Fighting cholesterol

‘Because they spread more easily than block butter, the average serving size is smaller, too,’ says Amanda. The vast majority of spreads in the UK are no longer made with the processed fats known as hydrogenated vegetable oils (HVOs) and therefore are free from artificial trans fat (but do check labels – look for the words ‘hydrogenated vegetable fats or oils’).

There’s no evidence that spreads are harmful – but there is evidence they can make a positive change to health when substituted for butter, for example by reducing blood cholesterol levels.