Your Facebook questions answered: What’s a better choice: butter or vegetable oil?


“Cooking with butter may be more heart healthy than vegetable or oil.” This article is so bad–butter is better than margarine or shortening but they’re touting it is better than (generic) oil?! As much as I would like to believe that I should*eat butter with abandon….” says Enlightened Eater Facebook fan, Karen Jorgensen Cooper.

Karen, you’ve got the right attitude when you approach these kinds of articles with skepticism. The subtitle says it all: “1970s survey data of mental hospital patients has never been analyzed, published until now. ” To be honest, why they would bother to publish this now is indeed a mystery. The information contained is so outdated that it should’ve been left in the trash heap!

In the study, researchers analyzed data gathered between 1968 and 1973 from more than 9400 men and women in nursing homes and state mental hospitals. They compared one group who were fed with foods cooked with corn oil, margarine and shortening and the other with butter and other hydrogenated oils.

Now the reason I said that the data should have been left untouched is that current thinking is very different from what is was back then. As well, margarine from the 1960s and 70s is completely different from most margarine on the market now. The margarines from decades ago were full of trans fats- toxic man-made substances that do not belong in the food supply. The same goes for those shortenings.

Trans fats not only boost artery-clogging LDL-cholesterol and lower protective HDL-cholesterol, they also promote inflammation, a process at the core of many of today’s chronic diseases. Experts have long proposed that these trans fats be banned from the food supply. We appear to be moving in that direction but this should have happened well over a decade ago or maybe even two.

At the same time, there are other factors to consider as nutritional science is also not a static one. The current consensus is that not all vegetable oils are created equal. While in the 60s and 70s, polyunsaturated fats, such as corn oil, an omega-6 fat, were thought to be the smartest choice, research has shown that we consume too much in the way of omega-6 fats. These fats were the darling in nutrition circles due to their potent cholesterol-reducing effects and consequently omega-6 rich oils such as corn, sunflower and safflower oil were highly recommended as that time. But over the recent past, these oils have lost favour due to their pro-inflammatory actions – meaning they may trigger inflammation.

So if you put together the inflammatory potential of the trans fats and the omega-6 fats, it’s not surprising that butter looked so good.

While many would currently love to give butter a health halo, it’s really important to put this research into context.

Butter, with its high saturated fat content, has been given an elevated nutritional status lately due to research which shows that when you compare foods containing saturated fat with those filled with refined carbohydrates and/or sugar, both are equally risky to your health. We used to think, though,  that saturated fat was more damaging to your heart health than these carbs.

But when studies compare healthy vegetable oils, such as extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil, to butter and other saturated fat- laden options, the healthy vegetable oil wins out.

So if you want to use butter for the taste of it, go ahead and use it in moderation. But if you’re looking for the best bets for the health of it, then go for healthier vegetable oils such as extra-virgin olive oil, canola oil, grapeseed oil and foods such as avocados and a variety of nuts and seeds which contain these beneficial oils.



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Categories: Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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