‘But it’s natural!’ – these are three words I hear all the time. With so many food choices available now it’s easy to see why some consumers like to stick with products as close to their natural form as possible. That isn’t a bad thing and in most cases is something I would encourage, especially if you are active – the less a food has been processed, the more nutrients it usually contains. However, like most things, there are always exceptions – take butter for example.
Butter is a ‘natural’ spread that many choose instead of other spreads for various reasons. Some like the flavour and others like that it is natural and not processed like margarine, which is, apparently, only one molecule away from being plastic. Butter might taste better but it certainly isn’t better for you. Butter contains lots of saturated fat, more than any other food product. Saturated fat is the type of fat that raises cholesterol and high cholesterol is the primary cause of heart disease.
You might think you don’t need to worry about the saturated fat in your diet or your cholesterol, especially if you are active and of normal body weight. But you don’t need to be fat on the outside to be fat on the inside. Heart disease accounts for more than 40 per cent of all deaths in New Zealand each year and many are premature and preventable. The recommended level for total cholesterol for adult New Zealanders is 4mmol/l or less – a level only one in two of us successfully achieve.
Margarine contains much less saturated fat than butter because it is made from oils like canola oil. It is true that it has a similar chemical backbone structure to plastic, however, many substances share similar chemical properties so the same can be said about any other fatty acids, including butter. Most importantly is that even the slightest variation in molecular structure can make a world of difference. For example, humans are only a couple of DNA links away from chimpanzees but that doesn’t make us the same.
Margarines are safe to eat and simply substituting them for butter is an easy way to lower the saturated fat in your diet. If you’re still not sold on using margarine as a spread and are keen to stick with something ‘natural’, avocado is a good option. Avocados, like margarine, are high in unsaturated fat and have lower levels of saturated fat so are much more heart healthy. Remember though, ‘good’ fat or ‘bad’ fat, it is still fat and very calorie rich. If you’re watching your calories, pay attention to your total fat intake – you can have too much of a good thing.
– Kathy Fouhy is a New Zealand registered dietician