Margarines – once considered to be a healthy alternative to butter – has gotten a bad rap in recent days – primarily because some brands are a source of trans fats. The pendulum has swung back to butter again since it’s made from natural ingredients – not synthetic ones. On the other hand, there’s a newer class of bread spreads called plant sterol margarines that are being promoted for their health benefits. What are plant sterol margarines and are they a healthy alternative to butter?
What are Plant Sterol Margarines?
Plant Sterol Margarines are margarines made of polyunsaturated fats that have plant sterol esters added to help lower cholesterol levels. These added plant sterols decrease cholesterol levels by reducing the amount of cholesterol absorbed by the gut. These “healthier” margarines can now be found in grocery stores – Benechol being an example of one popular brand.
Do Margarines with Plant Sterols Really Lower Cholesterol Levels?
Studies show that margarines with plant sterols can lower cholesterol levels by ten and fifteen percent when a person uses two to three grams of these margarines each day. Completely replacing butter which is high in saturated fat with Benechol or another margarine with plant sterols can reduce cholesterol to levels that rivals that seen with some cholesterol medications. For Benechol, two to three servings per day should be enough to get the cholesterol lowering benefits. Adding plant sterols to margarine doesn’t seem to alter the taste or consistency of the spread.
The Drawbacks to Using Plant Sterol Margarines
There are several drawbacks associated with using margarines with plant sterols. One is animal studies show that consuming high levels of plant sterols may actually increase the risk of coronary artery disease by acting similarly to cholesterol in the coronary arteries. According to the most recent research, this only seems to be a problem when plant sterols are consumed in large doses. Some margarines with plant sterols also contain small amounts of trans fats. Benchol has less than 0.5 grams per one tablespoon serving, but that will add up if you eat it every day. In addition, plant sterols may reduce of beta-carotene and some fat soluble vitamins.
Margarines with Plant Sterols: The Bottom Line
Although the cholesterol reduction that comes from using plant sterol margarines is significant, there are still some questions about the safety of these spreads. They’re probably not unsafe- and even beneficial – for people with elevated cholesterol levels if they only two or three servings are used each day. Problems can arise from the small amounts of trans fats in these spreads and the cholesterol-like effect on the arteries if large amounts are eaten. If you have high cholesterol levels, give them a try – just don’t overdo it.