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Is New Improved Margarine Good for You?

What do you think about Smart Balance margarine which claims it has no trans-fatty acids? Is it healthier?

Answer (Published 4/3/2002)

Updated 4/01/2005

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The manufacturer of Smart Balance margarine claims its product contains no hydrogenated oil and no trans-fatty acids and therefore should lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol and raise HDL ("good") cholesterol – just the opposite effect of spreads that contain both of these forms of fat.

This is supposed to happen if you limit your intake of dietary fat to 30 percent of daily calories and keep your consumption of dietary cholesterol to under 300 mg per day. In other words, if the fat in your diet is the same blend of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats as in Smart Balance.

The patented blend of oils in Smart Balance may, indeed, live up to the manufacturers’ claims if the dietary fats in your diet really do mirror the mix of fats the margarine provides, but managing this on a daily basis isn’t as simple as it may seem. If you have cholesterol problems, I recommend limiting your consumption of trans-fatty acids and increasing your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, especially from fish. Minimize your consumption of refined carbohydrates, eat more oat bran and other foods containing soluble fiber as well as plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, soy foods and other legumes. Drink green tea regularly and eat garlic, hot red pepper (chile) and shiitake mushrooms frequently.

While Smart Balance may be better than most margarine – if you adhere to the specified "balance" of fats in the rest of your diet – my views about margarine remain unchanged. It is still fat, mostly unhealthy fat, and a highly processed food. The less processed food you eat, the better. If your bread requires a spread, consider switching to some delicious, fresh bread that needs no help from added fat. Or try a little seasoned, mashed avocado or a light dribble of olive oil. Create low-fat toppings for your potatoes and other vegetables. And when you crave a bit of butter, use the real thing.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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