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Dumb or margarine?

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Which of the two fats is best to use in cooking?

The general rule is now known to many: an excess of saturated fats (contained in butter) and trans or hydrogenated fatty acids (contained in margarine) increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and some forms of cancer.

However, we often ask ourselves which of these two types of fat is potentially more harmful. So, is it better to use butter or margarine in cooking?

Limiting both would, obviously, be the simplest and most spontaneous response; however, wanting to delve deeper into the matter from a biochemical point of view, we come to the conclusion that between the two it is generally preferable to use butter.

Margarine is in fact a fat that does not exist in nature but derives from a mix of vegetable oils – sometimes with the addition of animal fats – processed through industrial chemical processes.

First point against margarine: the fats and oils used to make it are often of poor quality and with very low food value. For example, tropical oils are used, such as palm and palm kernel oils.

Since vegetable oils are liquid in nature, they are made solid through chemical processes, among which stands out that of hydrogenation.

Second point against margarine: the hydrogenation process inactivates some positive substances for the organism; furthermore, it alters the structure of some fatty acids with negative repercussions on cardiovascular health: it has in fact been seen that a diet rich in hydrogenated trans fats increases levels of low-density lipoproteins, the famous LDL or bad cholesterol.

Third point against margarine: recent studies have shown that a margarine rich in trans fatty acids, unlike butter, not only increases the so-called bad cholesterol, but at the same time decreases the good cholesterol, with highly deleterious effects on our health.

Having to choose between butter and margarine, it is therefore better to prefer the former, paying attention to its quality and origin and, naturally, without exaggerating with the quantities. From an energy point of view, both foods have the same caloric value.

100% plant-based margarine is cholesterol-free and this feature is often well advertised on the packaging, almost as if it were a healthy food and preferable to butter.

The Revenge of Margarines – Dietary or Functional Margarines

The food industry has responded to concerns about excess trans fats in the diet by developing manufacturing processes that bypass traditional hydrogenation. Today, on the market it is also possible to find margarines “free of hydrogenated fatty acids” (with a negligible content of trans fatty acids); not only that, we can also find margarines fortified with plant sterols and omega-three, both with positive effects on cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood, but also with Vitamin D, which in addition to the well-known effect on bone health could contribute to the reduction of cardiovascular risk . These new generation products can be considered a sort of “revenge of margarines” which thus become a better food than butter in terms of metabolic impact and cardiovascular health. However, doubt remains about the quality of the oils used in their production, which at least in theory cannot ignore the use of a certain percentage of coconut and palm oils. More generally, the solidity of margarine requires, for physical reasons, the presence of a certain quantity of saturated fatty acids. Therefore, in the absence of added functional molecules (omega-three, sterols, vitamin D, Vitamin E etc.) it is questionable to consider a non-hydrogenated vegetable margarine better than butter, also in consideration of its highly processed nature (extraction and chemical refining of the oils, interesterification with chemical catalysts, etc.).

Finally, it should be remembered that margarine is found in many pre-packaged foods such as pastries, biscuits and the like, it is therefore advisable to limit the intake of these foods and to carefully read the nutritional labels at the time of purchase. For these uses, in fact, very often cheap “old generation” industrial margarines are used, therefore rich in trans fatty acids.

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