How You Can Outsmart Margarine Marketing Claims

The supermarket dairy case is brimming with margarine choices these days. Some boast “no trans fats” or “non-hydrogenated.” Some are even bolder, calling themselves “smart,” or in one case claiming “improves cholesterol ratio.” And some are unusual, such as the newest entry that brags “made with yogurt.” Do any of these modified “margarines” live up to their claims? EN checked them out.

Avoiding a Trans Wreck. Trans fats result when vegetable oils are hydrogenated to make them more solid. But trans fats raise blood cholesterol just as saturated fats do. A number of margarines, such as Smart Beat and Promise, claim to contain no trans fats. In reality, they may actually contain some, since current regulations allow companies to round anything less than 0.5 gram down to zero on the label. But at least you know they are low in trans. This is also true of those that claim “No hydrogenated fats.”

As a general rule, the softer any margarine is, the fewer unhealthful fats it contains. Recent advances in technology, however, have allowed trans-free sticks to be developed. Lipton, the maker of Promise margarines, says it has developed a new process that doesn’t create trans fats.

Smart Balance or Smart Marketing? By far the most brazen claim is on the Smart Balance package: “Patented to improve cholesterol ratio !” It further claims that Brandeis University researchers developed the spread to improve the ratio of “good” cholesterol to “bad,” and it states a U.S. Patent was granted for this purpose. That’s not all. It says it contains a “precise balance” of fatty acids, which “coincides with American Heart Association…recommendations.”

First, the American Heart Association (AHA) told EN it does not approve of, nor does it endorse, this product. It even sent a cease and desist order to Smart Balance’s maker in the spring. The fat ratio in the product is not what AHA recommends, and more to the point, was never intended as a ratio for a single food, but only for an entire diet. That this one food, by itself, could improve your blood cholesterol ratio is wishful thinking. In fact, the product even exceeds AHA’s recommended maximum for saturated fat in a margarine.

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Don’t Get Tripped Up By Trans

Trans fats are not required to be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel of food labels. But the terms “hydrogenated” and “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list are dead giveaways to their presence. And with a little math you can estimate trans content: Add up the grams of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, then subtract that total from the total grams of fat listed. The difference is the amount of trans present, albeit a very crude estimate because of the rounding of numbers. In addition, some of the difference may be due to precursors of fat, like glycerol.

Second, when contacted by EN, one of the Brandeis University researchers in question confirms he conducted research on such a margarine, but denied involvement with its marketing, and acknowledges that one food will not miraculously change cholesterol levels.

Third, the U.S. Patent office is not in the business of evaluating health claims. Stating a patent was granted for this purpose is misleading. A patent indicates uniqueness, not value.

Y the Yogurt? It’s a different question for Brummel & Brown Spread, which boasts “made with yogurt.” The numbers for the tub version of this product look good, and although the texture is a bit different from other margarines, it spreads easily, melts fine and tastes okay. Yet the product hints it is more healthful than other margarines because it contains yogurt. Is it? Not really. Even its substantial-sounding 25% yogurt claim doesn’t mean much, because you don’t eat a spread in the same amounts as you do yogurt. So a one-tablespoon serving contains no protein, nor does it provide a significant amount of calcium. The advantage? We’re still trying to find one.

Bottom Line Basics. The key to using any margarine healthfully is to control the amount you use. No matter what the health claim, most of the calories in margarine come from fat. Here are EN’s top tips for outsmarting health claims on margarines:

  • Read the label. Shop for a spread with no more than two grams of cholesterol-raising fat (saturated and trans fats combined.)

  • Select tubs and liquids; most are still better than sticks.

  • Limit your serving size to what’s listed on the label—one tablespoon, about the size of your thumb—or use even less.

  • Buy light, low-fat or fat-free margarines to use for spreading.

  • Cook or bake with olive oil or canola oil instead of margarine.

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