With the latest hype about coconut oil, butter shaming and margarine marginalization, which should you choose? Our lovely dietitian Anika explains:

Butter is a type of saturated fat; 54% of butter contains saturated fatty acids. It is one of the oldest foods and has been used traditionally in many cultures. In the 1970’s, we were told to eat less butter as research showed evidence that consumption of a large amount of saturated fat is associated with coronary heart disease.

Margarine is a type of spread which is like an imitation of butter. It was invented in the late 19th century and historically used by those who could not afford the real thing. Margarine later gained popularity as a healthy alternative after butter was demonised. Margarine contains a very small amount of trans fat which results from the manufacturing process.

Trans fats are a type of bad fat that raises your bad cholesterol and lowers your good cholesterol. Many avoid margarine for this reason as it is not a ‘natural product’ as such. However, the amount of trans fat in margarine has been significantly reduced over the years, and the margarines in Australia have some of the lowest levels of trans fat in the world. Some of the healthier varieties of margarine have around 28% of saturated fat and virtually no trans fat (0.1-0.2%).

Coconut oil is one the richest source of saturated fats, with 92% of coconut oil containing saturated fat (lauric acid) which is even higher than butter. It has taken over the media lately, and many are raving about the health benefits. The hype surrounding coconut oil is based around the belief that the saturated fat in coconut oil behaves differently to typical saturated fats and does not have any negative effects on health. However, the scientific evidence indicates that coconut oil consumption is associated with an increase in cholesterol levels.

Some prefer butter or coconut oil because they are ‘natural’ products. But there are other healthier ‘natural’ options such as olive oil, avocados, nuts or tahini. These types of fats are known as unsaturated fats.

Final points to remember:

  • There is nothing wrong with eating butter; the key is to eat in moderation!

Having said that, it is still a good idea to use margarine sometimes as the saturated fat in margarine is much lower for the same amount. You should aim to reduce saturated fat or replace with healthier alternatives. The Heart Foundation recommends people to switch from butter to margarine; by eating margarine on your morning toast and lunch sandwiches; you would be able to remove almost 3 kg of saturated fat in one year!

  • If you use coconut oil in your cooking, limit the amount, and you may wish to switch to other healthier alternatives. If you don’t use coconut oil in your cooking, there is no need to take it up as there are better alternatives.
  • Fats should be used in moderation as consuming excess energy increases the risk of weight gain.

This article was kindly written by Anika Rouf, a Sydney based Accredited Practising Dietitian.