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Match margarine to use for holiday baking


Milly Carter
Administrative Associate, Urban Region
University of Missouri Extension
Phone: 816-252-7717

Published: Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010

Story source:

Susan Mills-Gray, 816-380-8460

BLUE SPRINGS, Mo.– Margarine or butter: That is the question.

Margarine was touted in the past as a healthier alternative to butter. Made from vegetable oil rather than animal fat, margarine is cholesterol-free and generally lower in saturated fat. On the other hand, many margarines are high in trans fats, which are connected to increased risk of heart disease.

“Butter and margarine both pose the challenge of being laden with calories and saturated fat/trans fat,” said Susan Mills-Gray, University of Missouri Extension nutrition and health education specialist. “I generally encourage consumers to use either butter or margarine sparingly.”

While butter is butter, there are many different types of margarines and vegetable oil spreads on the market, and their fat content varies widely, she said. How do you know which to purchase for spreading, cooking or baking?

Mills-Gray discusses several types of margarines and their uses:

-Traditional stick margarine. It’s the least healthful of all margarines, because it’s highest in trans fat. The more solid a margarine, the more trans fats it contains from partially hydrogenated oils. Best uses? The same as butter – spreading, melting, baking and sautéing.

-Regular tub margarines/spreads. Most contain 61-79 percent vegetable oil and many are now labeled as trans-fat-free, though they may still contain some partially hydrogenated oil. “Gimmicky ingredients like sweet cream buttermilk, yogurt and olive oil aren’t typically present in large-enough quantities to be of much help, except for some flavor,” Mills-Gray said. Several tub margarines now have added calcium. At 100 milligrams per tablespoon, which is 10 percent of the USDA Recommended Daily Value, they might be a helpful calcium boost. Best uses? Spreading, melting, sautéing. Avoid use in baking, as it reduces volume of baked products, so cakes and cookies rise less and have a tougher crumb.

-Light, low-fat and fat-free spreads. These range from 0 percent (fat-free/nonfat) to 40 percent vegetable oil (light/lower fat) and are your most healthful choices. Each of these products contains a large quantity of water, which greatly affects potential use. Best uses? Spreading, though the water content can cause sogginess if given time. Do not use for baking; it results in poor-quality products.

-Plant stanol and sterol ester spreads. These spreads include plant sterols and stanols that are proven to lower blood cholesterol, but you would need to use 2-3 tablespoons daily to see that benefit. “That can add calories fairly quickly to your diet,” she said. Brand-name examples are Benecol, Promise and Smart Balance. Best uses? Spreading. Don’t use for baking for same reason as light spreads.

-Spray/pump products. These are extremely low in saturated and trans fats, hence their liquid nature. Best uses? Topping and sautéing.

Three tips for choosing the healthiest margarine/spread:

-Check the Nutrition Facts label to be sure trans fat is 0 and saturated fat is no more than 1.5 grams per tablespoon.

-Be sure oil or water is first in the list of ingredients, but keep in mind the healthier margarine choices aren’t generally the best choice to use for baking.

-Scan the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oils; avoid brands with them.