Butter versus Margarine-Which Is Healthier?
We use the terms animal “fats” and plant “oils” because of the solid and fluid nature of these two groups of lipids. The major difference between fats and oils is the percentage of unsaturated fatty acids in the triglycerides and the phosphoglycerides of membranes. This difference is far more important than the fact that the length of the fatty acid chain can affect the melting points. Butter is an exception; it has a high proportion of short-chain fatty acids and thus can “melt in your mouth.” Membranes must maintain a certain degree of fluidity to be functional. Consequently, unsaturated fats are distributed in varying proportions in different parts of the body. The membranes of internal organs of warm-blooded mammals have a higher percentage of saturated fats than do the membranes of skin tissues, which helps keep the membrane more solid at the higher temperature of the internal organ. An extreme example of this is found in the legs and the body of reindeer, where marked differences exist in the percentages of saturated fatty acids.
When bacteria are grown at different temperatures, the fatty acid composition of the membranes changes to reflect more unsaturated fatty acids at lower temperatures and more saturated fatty acids at higher temperatures. The same type of difference can be seen in eukaryotic cells grown in tissue culture.
Even if we look at plant oils alone, we find different propor-tions of saturated fats in different oils. The following table gives the distribution for a tablespoon (14 g) of different oils.
Because cardiovascular disease is correlated with diets high in saturated fats, a diet of more unsaturated fats may reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Canola oil is an attractive dietary choice because it has a high ratio of unsaturated fatty acids to saturated fatty acids. Since the 1960s, we have known that foods higher in polyunsaturated fats were healthier. Unfortunately, even though olive oil is popular in cooking Italian food and canola oil is trendy for other cooking, pouring oil on bread or toast is not appealing. Thus companies began to market butter substitutes that were based on unsaturated fatty acids but that would also have the physical characteristics of butter, such as being solid at room temperature. They accomplished this task by partially hydrogenating the double bonds in the unsaturated fatty acids making up the oils. The irony here is that, to avoid eating the saturated fatty acids in butter, butter substitutes were created from polyunsaturated oils by removing some of the double bonds, thus making them more saturated. In addition, many of the soft spreads that are marketed as being healthy (safflower oil spread and canola oil spread) may indeed pose new health risks. In the hydrogenation process, some double bonds are converted to the trans form. Studies now show that trans fatty acids raise the ratioof LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol compared to HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, a positive correlator of heart disease. Thus the effects of trans fatty acids are similar to those of saturated fatty acids. In the last few years, however, new butter substitutes have been marketed that advertise “no trans fatty acids.”