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17 May 2006

The Food Guys: Butter is Fine and Healthy in the Right Amounts

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 like butter.

Despite the Frenchmanís arguable success, the ironic truth is that few self-respecting French chefs would be caught dead with butter substitute in their kitchen.

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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