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Margarine meltdown.

Margarine Meltdown

Margarine is in no danger of being mistaken for a healthy food.

After all, it's nothing but vegetable oil and water, with a sprinkling of safe additives. Since water has no calories, almost all of margarine's calories come from fat.

But that's not to say all margarines are the same. Some have four times more total and artery-clogging saturated fat than others. It all depends on the oils manufacturers use, how "stiff" those oils are, and how much air or water is added.

Fortunately, you don't have to worry about all that. Two numbers on any package tell you everything you need to know.


The Food and Drug Administration says that before a product can call itself a "margarine," it has to be at least 80 percent fat by weight. Most of the other 20 percent is water.

That means a tablespoon of a regular margarine like Parkay or Imperial has about 100 calories and 11 grams of fat. So does butter. The difference is that seven of butter's 11 grams of fat are saturated; only two or three of margarine's are. And, because butter is an animal product, it contains cholesterol (31 mg per tablespoon). Margarine doesn't.

So margarine is better for your heart. But it's still bad news for your waistline and possibly your risk of cancer. To find fewer calories and less fat, look for a "whipped," "diet," "reduced-calorie," or "light" margarine.

A "spread" is just a margarine with more water. Regular spreads run anywhere from 50 to 75 percent fat by weight. Pump in still more water and you get a "light" margarine or spread, which ranges from 40 to 60 percent fat. "Diet" or "reduced calorie" spreads, at about 40 percent fat, have the most water.

The difference between "whipped" products and their non-whipped cousins is air. More air means from 25 to 50 percent less fat.


If this percent-fat-by-weight business sounds confusing, don't worry. There's a far easier way to tell if a product is a good one. Look at two numbers on its label.

If the "Fat" in a one-tablespoon serving is six grams or less, and if the "Saturated Fat" is one gram or less, it's a winner.

For the most dramatic savings, try Nucoa Heart Beat. At just three grams of fat--less than a half-gram of it saturated--per tablespoon, the corn oil spread has half the fat and calories of most "diet" spreads. It won't melt on your toast like margarine, but it tastes the same.

But be warned. Because they have more water, diet spreads may spatter when heated. And Fleischmann's Extra Light left a filmy coating when we used it for frying.


Most margarines are made by combining liquid oils with "stiffer" partially hydrogenated oils.

Hydrogenation may have a downside, though: it produces trans fatty acids, which, in a recent Dutch study, raised the cholesterol levels of people who ate them in large amounts. [See "The Trouble with Trans," October 1990.]

But the study used specially prepared "margarines," so the results need to be confirmed with commercial ones. In the meantime, it doesn't hurt to minimize trans. The problem is, manufacturers won't say how much trans their products contain. Which leaves you with two rules of thumb:

1. The less fat, the less trans.

2. Among products of equal fat content, the softer the spread, the less trans.

That means diet tubs are better than diet sticks (tubs are softer). Liquid ("squeeze") diet spreads should be best of all. Unfortunately, there aren't any.

All of our "Best Bites" are low in fat, and almost all are tubs, so (with the exception of Promise Extra Light stick) they satisfy both rules.


The only time you may want to stray from our "Best Bites" is if you need a full-fat stick for baking crispy or flaky pie crusts, pastries, or cookies. (For muffins, quick breads, and other cookies, try a tub, squeeze margarine, or oil.)

If you need a full-fat, check the chart for brands that have 10 or 11 grams of fat, no more than two grams of saturated fat...and perhaps a bit of extra polyunsaturated fat.

Ordinarily, a tablespoon of a full-fat margarine made from partially hydrogenated soybean or corn oil has about two or three grams of poly. But margarines made from more-polyun-saturated oils like sunflower (Promise) or safflower (Hain) have four to six grams. Also, some brands that have liquid oil as their first ingredient (Fleischmann's and Mazola) have four to six grams.

We don't recommend loading up on polys, because high-poly diets cause tumors in animals. But a few extra grams isn't loading up, and polys do lower cholesterol (and may counteract the damage--if any--done by trans fats). So choose high-poly margarines (marked with a *)...if you need full-fat.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:saturated fat content
Author:Schmidt, Stephen
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Previous Article:Where there's smoke....
Next Article:Carcinogens au naturel?

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