• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

Butter vs. margarine: Which is healthier?

February 15, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
With many products supposedly spreading good health, buying butter or margarine is more confusing than ever."It is confusing because you see one that says 'Nine out of 10 cardiologists recommend this,' 'This one's heart healthy,' 'This one has Omega-3s,' so how do you know which one is the best one to choose?," said nutritionist JJ Virgin.

Virgin says consumers are better about checking facts on the back, but buying a buttery spread can challenge nutritional knowledge. For example, some spreads say they have cholesterol-lowering plant stanols.

"That claim is only valid if you get two grams of these plant stanols, which is four servings, which is 200 calories," Virgin said.

That's a lot of calories. How about spreads offering heart and brain healthy Omega-3 fats?

"It has EPA and DHA, which are those healthy ones that we get from fish. It had 34 milligrams. When we tell people to eat somewhere between one and two grams, that's a 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams a day," Virgin said.

That's a mere drop in the Omega-3 fat bucket. Buyers are also warned against tubs touting added calcium and vitamin D.

"The amount of calcium in here per serving is 100 milligrams, and most doctors now are recommending between 800 and 1,500 milligrams for women," Virgin said.

The spread may contain 80 international units of vitamin D, but experts are recommending up to 2000 IUs.

While trans fat is absent from many foods, a "trans-fat free" product may still have it if partially hydrogenated oil is in the ingredient list because the recommended serving size can have trans fat set at a half a gram or less to be legally trans-fat free. If you're using more, you could have that trans fat you're trying to avoid.

So is butter better?

"It's made from animal fat, it's going to have on the average saturated fat, maybe as much as 7 grams per tablespoon, you're going to have 30 mg or more of cholesterol," said Dietician Gail Frank from Cal State Long Beach.

Compare that to a spread, which might have 2 grams of sat fat and cholesterol free. Frank sees the vegetable spreads as a better choice.

Virgin prefers her clients to use a blend of butter and olive oil combined in tiny doses as a chemical free way to go.

But no matter which you choose, both experts agree, less is best.