By Dr. Debra Goodwin, Ph.D., R.D., & Al Harris, M.P.A.
Jacksonville State University
DOC: Hey Al. The longstanding debate over whether to eat butter
or margarine has become even more confusing with the emergence of functional
food spreads such as Benecol, Taking Control, and Phytrol.
AL: Hi Doc. I trust the recorded wisdom of the late Julia
Child, who once said, "Giving up butter means that in about two years
you will be covered in dandruff." I recall she said this in a live
broadcast during which she dropped a potato pancake on her countertop,
prompting another truism: "You just scoop it back into the pan. You
are alone in the kitchen and nobody can see you." Apply the same principle
to butter: Eat it when no oneís looking ó that way, you avoid long
harangues from the butter-haters.
DOC: Just a moment, Al. These margarine-style spreads contain
plant sterols, derived from soybeans and/or wood pulp, are thought
to inhibit absorption of dietary cholesterol and, in turn, reduce
blood cholesterol levels. In one recent study, individuals who used
a plant-sterol spread in place of regular margarine for one year lowered
their blood cholesterol levels by an average of 25 mg. These spreads
reportedly can be used like margarine. It appears the major drawback
is their cost, which can be over five times the cost of regular margarine.
You mentioned using ghee or clarified butter and olive oil in several of your
recent recipes. Have you tried any of the plant sterol spreads?
AL: Doc, the long, sad search for fake fat began in the early 1800s.
Milestones include the French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouriesí 1869
concoction called oleomargarine, the glop from which we got the word
margarine. In my opinion, margarine has become a truly greasy term
that food companies use to refer to anything edible that tastes vaguely
Despite the Frenchmanís arguable success, the ironic truth is that few
self-respecting French chefs would be caught dead with butter substitute in
Years ago, laws in several states forced the makers of fake butter to dye
their products pink to alert consumers that they were not getting the real
thing. I think that was a good move. As it turned out, there were controversies
and health issues associated with the early substitutes.
Fast forward to modern times. Corporations cracked the whip and researchers
stepped up the pace in the 1970s. NutraSweet came out with Simplesse and
eventually Proctor & Gamble developed Olestra. The latest thing out of the
beaker is sterol, which works by reducing the absorption of cholesterol in the
small intestine. They accomplish this with wood pulp ó I think of it as sawdust.
Despite the outcry against butter, it contains important vitamins and
minerals, plus cholesterol helps maintain intestinal health. Cholesterol builds
the brain and nervous system in youngsters, which is why whole milk and other
dairy products are offered in school cafeterias. Human breast milk is extremely
high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
In my opinion, the key is to avoid an excess. Butter is part of my vegetarian
lifestyle, and my total cholesterol is well within the healthy range.
I think the key is moderation. Iíd rather have a little of the real stuff
than any amount of a substitute. Ghee, olive oil and other oils I use in
ayurvedic cooking are the real deal.
Again, I quote Julia Child, who died at age 91: "Iíll put some [butter] on my
spinach, some in sauce, some in a nice, rich chocolate cake with butter
frosting. Eat the real thing, but a little of it."
Debra Goodwin, Ph.D., R.D.,
teaches nutrition in the Jacksonville (Ala.)†State University Department of
Family and Consumer Sciences.
Al Harris, M.P.A., is News Bureau director
at JSU and the former writer/editor of a nutrition column published by the New
York Times Regional Newspaper Group.
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