Butter, Margarine or Oil?

butter versus oil

If you love butter, you’ll be glad to know that the latest review of some old data now shows that replacing the yellow stuff with vegetable oils high in linoleic acid (an omega-6 found, for example, in corn, sunflower, safflower and cottonseed oil) does not reduce your risk of heart disease or overall risk of death – even though it does lower your cholesterol levels.

The re-evaluation of the traditional diet-heart hypothesis  published in the British Medical Journal, even suggest that vegetable oils high in linoleic acid (an omega-6) are worse than butter when it comes to preventing heart disease. This casts doubt on the original ‘spreads are better than butter for your heart’ messages that were disseminated when  saturated fat was at the height of its demonization. In fact, randomized controlled trials – the gold standard for medical and nutritional research – have never shown that replacing butter with spreads can reduce the risk of death from coronary heart disease or any other cause – despite what we were led to believe.

The largest of these original trials, the Minnesota Coronary Experiment, was carried out between 1968 and 1973, and involved almost 9,500 people living in six state mental hospitals and one state-run nursing home (an ethical nightmare). When these results were finally published in 1989, showing lower cholesterol levels and a neutral effect on mortality, it seems that some important, planned analyses were missing. This omission was recently addressed by modern researchers, using the original data. They found that, as originally reported, the cholesterol levels in those making the switch to a corn oil spread did go down, but the new finding was that there were almost twice as many heart attacks in those who were switched to a spread than in the control group.

Other reviews of old studies agree

Another re-analysis of old data – this time from the Sydney Diet Heart Study – was published in the BMJ in 2013 and this also showed a higher rate of heart disease, and deaths from any medical cause, in those switching from butter to a safflower oil polyunsaturated margarine, compared to controls.

I am so glad I never made the butter to spread switch. I love butter (in moderation) and have never felt guilty for using it, although I do choose to cook with olive oil for the reasons listed here. Everything in moderation, eh?

Image credits: multiart/shutterstock

About DrSarahBrewer

Dr Sarah Brewer MSc (Nutr Med), MA (Cantab), MB, BChir, RNutr, MBANT, CNHC qualified from Cambridge University with degrees in Natural Sciences, Medicine and Surgery. After working in general practice, she gained a Master's degree in Nutritional Medicine from the University of Surrey. Sarah is a registered Medical Doctor, a registered Nutritionist, a registered Nutritional Therapist and the award winning author of over 60 popular self-help books. Sarah's other websites are www.MyLowerBloodPressure.com and www.ExpertHealthReviews.com.

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4 thoughts on “Butter, Margarine or Oil?

  • lynnsamuelson

    Hi Sarah,

    I have always loved butter and never really felt that it was unhealthy in moderate amounts. The only time I eat it normally is on toast or bread when I go out so I’m not a huge consumer of it. I usually use olive oil or avocado oil to cook with. My husband and son have been telling me that it is unhealthy and that I should switch to Earth Balance. I can’t wait to see their reaction after reading your article!


    • admin

      Ha! Poor butter had such a bad reputation for so long it’s easy to feel guilty when indulging. Everything in moderation of course.

  • Evelyn

    Very interesting! Thank goodness I stopped using vegetable oils a couple years ago! Its so beneficial to be informed! Love your site, its right up my alley 🙂 Will def be back!

    • DrSarahBrewer Post author

      Hi Evelyn, I use guernsey butter as it is so yellow and rich in antioxidant carotenoids – guernsey cows are less efficiecnt at converting betacarotene to vitamin A, apparently, which is one reason why their milk is so richly coloured and creamy.