Trans-Free Margarines?

If you use margarine, it’s time to find one that’s free of substances called trans fats. More than ever before, it appears that trans fats — created when liquid vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated to make them solid — are unhealthy. A new study shows that nurses who ate the most trans fats had more fatal and nonfatal heart attacks. And a study of women in Europe suggests (though this still needs proving) that a diet high in trans fats may increase our risk for breast cancer (New England Journal of Medicine, November 20, 1997; Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, September 1997).

What’s in store now?

Just in time, there’s a whole slew of new margarines made without trans fats. (Most regular margarines have 1 to 3 g. trans fat per tablespoon.) Exactly how liquid oil gets to be margarine without trans fats varies by product:

  • Spectrum Naturals spreads, including the first trans-free olive oil spread, seem to be the least highly processed. These products use natural gums to thicken and have the consistency of pudding — technically they aren’t margarine.
  • Smart Balance spread, made with a blend of four oils — soy, canola, olive, and palm — has the same proportion of poly, mono and saturated fats recommended by the American Heart Association (nutrition experts at Brandeis University created the mixture). Thickening comes partly from the small amount of saturated fats.
  • Fat-free and low-fat margarines have always been a good bet for keeping trans fats in check. Some have no trans fats at all (Promise Ultra Fat-Free, Smart Beat Fat-Free Squeeze, and Fleischmann’s Fat-Free Spread). Others have less than 0.5 g per Tbsp (Smart Beat Trans Fat Free Super Light Margarine, Fleishmann’s Lower Fat, and Promise Light and Ultra) — considered trans-free by current labeling practice. In this case, you’ll still see “partially hydrogenated oil” on the ingredient list. These margarines use gums, gelatin, or starch for thickening.
  • Promise Spread, a new full-fat trans-free margarine, lists as an ingredient “hydrogenated oil.” Unlike partially hydrogenated oil, hydrogenated oil has no trans fats. (Yes, it is confusing.) Promise is keeping its manufacturing process a secret.

Here’s the bottom line:

  • Keep your total fat intake sensibly low — that automatically keeps trans fats (and saturated fat) in check.
  • Read ingredient labels of frozen foods and commercial crackers, cookies, chips, cereals, and snack cakes.
  • If “partially hydrogenated oils” are present, see if you can find a similar product with oil that doesn’t say partially hydrogenated.
  • Fast food like french fries and breaded and fried chicken or fish are notoriously high in trans fats — so consider them a once-in-a-while treat.
  • Butter is not better than margarine. Too much of butter’s saturated fat also puts hearts at risk.
  • On the other hand, if you just use a dab, any margarine or butter is fine. But for everyone who spreads it on thick, trans-free margarines make healthy sense.

Discover the new crop of margarines with no trans fats. They may help you ward off heart attacks and breast cancer.

Trans-free margarines*
(with nutrition facts per 1 tbsp)
CaloriesTotal fat
Sat. fat
Spectrum Naturals**
Original Spread
canola oil)
Mediterranean Spread
(canola and olive oils with
garlic and basil)
Only Olive Spread
(olive oil)
Essential Omega Spread
(soy oil with flaxseed for
extra omega-3s)
Smart Balance8092.5
Smart Beat
Fat-Free Squeeze500
Fat-Free Spread2020
Ultra Fat-Free500
Ultra Spread303.50
Light Spread (stick/soft) 5061.5/1
Spread (stick/soft)90/8010/82.5/2
Fat-Free (squeeze/spread)500
Lower Fat Spread404.50
Parkay Squeeze8091.5s

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