Monday, 9 January 2012

The Great Big Butter Debate: Butter vs Low Fat Spread

I imagine that the debate on which is healthier for you - butter or low-fat spread - will continue for years and years. It's something that often crosses my mind, as I smear a golden blob of butter across my toast in the morning or lop off a slab destined to end up in a cake. I've tried margarines and low-fat spreads (both in baking and on my toast) and despite all the technology out there, nothing is yet able to really compare to butter.

But I still feel guilty, as I nibble on my buttered toast. We've been eating the stuff for thousands of years but only in the last century or so have we seen a rapid rise in heart disease and diet-related cancers. Butter is natural, right? And some people believe that low-fat spreads and margarines are actually worse for you than butter. So what's going on? 

Butter comprises of about 80% fat. And because that's animal fat, a large amount of this is saturated fat and we all know what that eventually does to our arteries. Between the two World Wars, butter was hard to source and so an imitation butter was produced. The imitation butter was eventually marketed as healthier than butter and lower in saturated fat, and subsequently we all panicked and started buying it up. It was made by hardening (hydrogenating) vegetable oil into a spreadable form. The problem with this, is that manipulating vegetable oil in this way resulted in creating trans fats, which started to raise concerns of their own. Studies began to show correlations between eating trans fats, with increases in coronory heart disease, Alzheimer's and diabetes. A study by Professor Walter Willett in 2004 found that nurses who ate trans fats were more likely to have a heart attack than those who didn't, leading him to comment that the turn to trans fats from butter was "a disastrous mistake" (read Felicity Lawrence's brilliant article on the whole subject here). A study published only last week also hints that trans fats might even cause brain shrinkage.

So, low-fat margarines are bad then, right? Wrong, according to dietician Catherine Collins, who wrote in the Daily Mail in 2009. She said: "virtually all spreads - and foods made with these - are trans fat-free." She goes on to explain that the industry has now changed the way they make these spreads and says that butter is the one natural food she still does not recommend her clients eat. 

So how much faith do we have in these low-fat spreads? Not much, according to a quick Twitter poll I drew up last week. I asked which spread people preferred, and why. The replies came pinging in. "I wouldn't touch low fat spread with a ten-foot bargepole. Why should I pay more for air/water?" replied one. "Always butter, don't like taste of spread or see the point... but thinly and not if you don't need it", responded another. The Pump Street Bakery responded with: "BUTTER. No question. L'Escure at the bakery, any decent one at home. For flavour reasons, also because less processed." Not one Tweet favoured spread, for health reasons or for anything else.

And it could be that margarine  and similar spreads are just scapegoats for the rise in health problems many people are now experiencing. Maybe we're dwelling too much on this issue and not the real problem at hand. Felicity Lawrence writes, in the article above: "it is the shift to an overwhelmingly industrial fast-food diet that really needs to be addressed." After all, trans fats have appeared in many other processed foods.

But no one can deny that there is a lot of saturated fat in butter. And while one camp urge us to abandon it completely, or at least limit our consumption of it; the other say that at least it's pure, often citing the French, who are said to eat lots of butter, cream and red meat but have low incidences of heart disease.

Me? Well, I'm beginning to think twice before baking a cake. I've baked with so-called baking margarine, but often found the cakes greasy and oily in taste. I'll still be baking (and cooking) with butter, but perhaps once a week, instead of two or three times a week. And on my toast? Well, as Gizzi Erskine tweeted about butter last week: "For most people it might be a scraping on toast which is barely going to break the bank." So a scraping, rather than a lashing, perhaps.

What do you think? Butter or low-fat spread? And what do you think is the real issue here? What we choose to spread on our toast or the increasing reliance on fast 'industrialised' food?

1 comment:

  1. The real problem is the industrial processing of food. Low-fat 'spreads' are artificial and taste foul. Even if made with olive oil. I really do believe that three things have accelerated the increase in heart disease: processed food with additives to preserve them and universal homogenisation of milk which changes the structure of the fat and makes it able to be absorbed into the bloodstream unchanged. The third is smoking which was taken up wholesale from the beginning of the 20th century. Until these three things happened, heart disease had not increased dramatically for centuries. Saturated fat is an essential part of the human diet, and supplies valuable vitamins.