- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Nutritionists have warned the public for years about the dangers of consuming too much fat from dairy products — especially butter. Consumers are told repeatedly how an excess of fat raises cholesterol levels and causes heart disease.

The warnings’ success shows in the number of butter substitutes on store shelves, a few of which advertise that they actually can help reduce cholesterol. Parkay, Promise, Take Control, Benecol and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! — the names easily can become a blur in shoppers’ minds.

“There are a lot of products that don’t really call themselves anything. I think of them collectively as spreads, since you can even spread an oil,” says nutritionist Ruth Kava of the American Council on Science and Health (www.acsh.org), a New York-based nonprofit membership organization funded by industry and foundations to speak out on public health issues.

“Margarine by definition is a butter substitute that is made from vegetable oils that are somehow treated to be solid or semisolid in most cases.”

Like many people associated even tangentially with butter and butter-substitute industry sponsors, she takes the view that “none of it is [all] good and none of it is [all] bad. It really is a matter of how much you eat.” Butter and old-fashioned margarine contain the same number of calories, but that is only part of the debate about substitutes versus “the real thing.”

Increasing the choice doesn’t always increase the public’s knowledge of the products themselves and how they differ. Much of the problem lies in understanding the various kinds of fat involved and how they react in combination with other ingredients.

Many of the words frequently used to describe fats — saturated (the so-called “bad” fat), unsaturated (“good” fat), monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, hydrogenated and trans fat — reflect their chemical composition and the behavior of their molecules.

“There are three main types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated,” the margarine manufacturers’ Web site says, quoting a Food and Drug Administration Q&A.; “All fatty acids are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atoms. A saturated fatty acid has the maximum possible number of hydrogen atoms attached to every carbon atom. It is, therefore, said to be ‘saturated’ with hydrogen atoms, and all of the carbons are attached to each other with single bonds.”

Trans fat is created when vegetable oil is hardened into margarine and shortening. A complication — and likely health compromise — arises when unsaturated trans fatty acids act more like saturated fat during food processing. Trans fat currently does not have to be labeled on food products. Benecol and Promise contain no trans fatty acids and proudly state that on labels.

“While meat and diary products naturally contain small amounts of trans fat, the vast majority of trans in the American diet is created artificially by bubbling hydrogen gas through vegetable oil, a process called partial hydrogenation,” notes Consumer Reports in a recent article titled “The Stealth Fat” that discusses trans fat and how the transformation from unsaturated to saturated oil takes place.

“Because of their [molecular] configuration, the presence [of trans fatty acids] makes fat more solid,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Washington-based independent Center for Science in the Public Interest (www.cspinet.org), which has petitioned the FDA to have trans fat included on food labels.

“[Trans fat] increases blood cholesterol levels and people’s risk of heart disease. When they see ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ in the ingredients, they can’t know if there is a lot or a little trans fat. Those frozen pop-open biscuits have it, but there isn’t so much of it in peanut butter.”

Liquid vegetable oils such as soybean, canola and even olive are monounsaturated fats considered less harmful than solids. Because of the nature of their internal properties, they are not often used by food-processing manufacturers who need a substance that mixes well with other ingredients and has a better taste.

At home, Ms. Wootan uses canola oil to make bread or pancakes, and when she needs a solid fat, she buys stick margarine.

“I think of butter as an occasional treat like candy,” she says. For spreading, she advises butter fans to buy whipped butter “because it is softer and easier to spread, so you use less of it.”

Dietitian Susan Finn, chairman of the nonprofit industry-sponsored American Council for Fitness and Nutrition (www.acfn.org), prefers butter because she likes it better and only bakes with margarine for things such as bread “because it is a little cheaper. When you talk butter or margarine, it is the same number of calories — 100 in a tablespoon.”

Food scientists still debate the value of margarine and other substitutes versus butter because even margarine has become a bit more complicated in its formulation. The government long ago ruled that, with one exception, a product can’t be called margarine unless it contains 80 percent fatty vegetable oil, the same legal minimum percentage as butter.

The exception is when margarine contains only 50 percent fatty vegetable oil. Then it can legally use the words “low fat” on its label, according to Sue Taylor, spokeswoman for the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers (www.margarine.org).

“To do any serious baking, you need 60 percent or more oil, which is fat, which means you can still cook and bake with vegetable oil spreads that have that amount in them,” she says. “Fat imparts specific properties when you bake, [but] people are not baking as much as they once did, so the majority of these [low-fat spreads] are used for a topping or spread. Packaging as well as taste is of major importance.”

Americans last year spent $1.2 billion on butter substitutes and $400 million on butter, according to the manufacturers of substitutes. Cost is likely to be a factor as much as marketing prowess in determining these figures, because butter usually is two to three times more expensive. Some of the newer substitutes with cholesterol-reducing properties are priced even higher than butter.

Butter manufacturers prefer to quote amounts consumed; they say American consumption of butter is half that of the substitutes and growing. For many people, taste or what some nutritionists call “mouth feel” is a primary consideration. Culinary gurus such as Julia Child, who champions butter fat — “in moderation” — over any kind of substitute, can influence public opinion on the matter.

Both Benecol (www.benecol.com) and Take Control (www.takecontrol. com) boast that they reduce consumers’ cholesterol, which seems an outlandish claim at first, but a reading of ingredients shows a substance called phytosterol esters high on the list. The Benecol package describes esters as “the unique ingredient … derived from natural plant components found in vegetable oils such as soy.”

The effectiveness of esters in reducing cholesterol, Benecol asserts, has been proved “by over 20 studies, including one reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.”

“Take Control and Benecol work to lower cholesterol because they don’t exit the digestive track and go into the rest of the body,” Ms. Wootan says.

A careful reading of labels is necessary for determining the best use of any of these products. The order in which ingredients are given tells about comparative amounts included — but not total percentages.

Take Control warns in small print on its “light” version (“55 percent less fat and calories than margarine”) that it is not recommended for baking or frying. Water is listed first among the ingredients, meaning that the quantity of water is larger than phytosterol esters and other liquid oils.

Water evaporates in cooking, and the liquid oil does not contain properties that allow ingredients to form the light, tasty quality desired in pastry and other baked goods.

Compare that to Land O Lakes Margarine, which lists liquid soybean oil first, followed by partially hydrogenated soybean oil. No wonder, then, that the margarine stick product says prominently that it is “Great for Baking.” The consumer might wonder about that claim if he or she hasn’t already blundered by trying to bake with a new substitute product and had less than successful results.

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