Butter or margarine? Coconut oil or olive oil? Dietary fats have never been more controversial than they are today. There are many conflicting arguments, each supported by scientific evidence and anecdotal experience.
We’ve decided to look at two of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to fats, assessing both sides of the argument.
Butter or margarine?
Traditionally, butter has been discouraged because of its high saturated fat content, which is known to elevate LDL cholesterol. However, this recommendation has been revisited recently.
In the last 5-10 years, some scientists have publicly questioned the link between saturated fat, LDL cholesterol, and increased risk of heart disease. More research is still being done in this space, and if you look hard enough, you can find studies confirming the association, and others disproving it. What is clear, however, is replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated oils and wholefoods may reduce risk of heart disease.
But do margarines offer the same benefits as the oils they are made from?
Margarines are plant based oils that have undergone a ‘solidifying’ process to make them spreadable. The margarines of old (circa 1960’s) contained trans-fats, universally known to contribute to heart disease, which earned them a bad reputation. However, modern day varieties contain virtually no trans fats, and maintain their high omega-6 polyunsaturated fat content. Many margarines, such as Flora Pro-Activ, also contain added plant sterols, which can help to lower cholesterol, and fat soluble vitamins.
You may have read, or heard about, David Gillespe’s book ‘toxic oil’. He explains that the body works best with an even balance of omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, and that consuming plant oil products rich in omega-6 can disrupt this balance. The evidence supporting this theory this is shaky at best, and very old. However, new and noteworthy research targeting margarine focuses on emulsifiers, and how these may negatively influence gut health. There’s also the argument of ‘natural’ vs ‘man made’…
Despite the above, virtually all reputable health organisations, including Harvard Health, the Australian and American Heart Foundation, and the Dietitians Association of Australia, continue to recommend plant oils and their products, including margarine, as a healthier choice. With modern margarines being a relatively new product, it is yet to be determined whether they have similar benefits to the liquid oils they contain.
Bottom line: The jury is still out. Based on current evidence, we believe that either butter or modern margarine can fit well into a healthy lifestyle, in small quantities. So – choose based on flavour and philosophical preferences. If you are still not convinced, use avocado or drizzle some olive oil on your toast – both natural products rich in monounsaturated fats, and well proven to prevent heart disease!
Olive oil or coconut oil?
Coconut oil is approximately 92% saturated fat by weight. However, the saturated fat found in coconut – lauric acid – is different than the saturated fats found in dairy, animal products and palm oil. Lauric acid is a smaller unit, and therefore, is processed differently.
Depending on which journal article you read, Lauric acid may be considered a ‘medium chain triglyceride’ (MCT), or a ‘long chain fat’. MCT oils are burned more readily as a fuel source than longer-chain fats, and are less likely to form fatty plaques in your arteries. In fact, some studies have shown coconut fat can increase your ‘good’ cholesterol, although not to the same extent as olive oil or fish oils (RS).
On the down side, lauric acid from coconut oil may increase your triglycerides, which can be stored in your liver, around your major organs, or in muscle (RS). And, whilst we may be more efficient at metabolizing it, you still need to burn off the calories it provides. It is not a ‘fat burning’ food!
Whilst there is controversy surrounding the health benefits, or lack thereof, of coconut oil, one thing remains certain. Olive oil is undoubtedly good for us. Extra virgin olive oil, in particular, is high in antioxidants.
With regards to cooking, it is a myth that the monounsaturated fats in olive oil are unstable at high heat. In fact, a good quality extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 210C, similar to that of coconut oil (TC).
Bottom line: Coconut oil has a lot more to prove before we can equate it to olive oil. But there is more research to be done regarding the activity of MCT oils. Watch this space