Food stuff


The happiest day of my life was when a doctor told me "they" – the nutrition gurus – had decided butter was less bad for you than margarine. I was thrilled to get official permission to switch back to butter.

Now along come Benecol and Take Control, two new "margarine-like spreads" from McNeil Consumer Healthcare and Lipton’s, respectively, that claim to actually lower your cholesterol.

Margarine is bad enough, but a "spread" that doesn’t even pretend that "you can’t believe it’s not butter"? How’s that going to taste?

Let’s look at the health claims first. Dr. David Klurfeld, chair of the department of nutrition and food science at Wayne State University, says the question of which is worse, margarine or butter, is complex and controversial. Margarine contains less fat than butter, but it also includes transfatty acids, which raise your total cholesterol levels and lower good cholesterol (HDL).

Some scientists think transfatty acids are the worst thing you can eat for your heart. Others think saturated fat (butter) is worse: It raises total cholesterol (good and bad) more.

Confused? No wonder someone looked for an alternative. Benecol ("benefit cholesterol," get it?) was invented in Finland, which once had the highest rate of coronary heart disease in the world. The Finnish government started promoting "stanol ester," a natural compound derived, in Benecol’s case, from pine trees, but also present in lots of other plants. In a study, 150 people with mildly elevated cholesterol used Benecol in place of some of their butter or margarine. Their LDL (bad) cholesterol levels fell an average of 14 percent.

"The active ingredient has been used for treating people for 40 years," says Klurfeld. "It used to be available as an ugly white powder, but it was a mess to take. Now you can hide it in margarine, and it actually works better with fat."

Benecol and Take Control are less expensive than cholesterol- lowering drugs and seem to be completely safe. (The drugs have occasional side effects including liver and muscle damage and cataracts.) As for fat content, butter has 12 grams per tablespoon, Benecol Regular has 10, and Benecol Light has 6.

Before you rush out and spend $3.79 for 10 ounces of soybean-based Take Control, or $4.99 for 5.9 ounces of Benecol, remember that half the population has normal cholesterol levels, and has no need to invest their grocery dollars in something that tastes like ...

I found Benecol greasy and mostly tasteless. My tasters assured me it was no different from other tub margarines.

Both products should be available everywhere soon if they’re not already. Kroger is planning samplings, along with "try me free" rebates. And look for more stanol-enhanced foods in the future.– Jane Slaughter


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About The Author

Jane Slaughter

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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