Question of the Week

Is olive oil-based butter better for your health?

Sun, 19th Sep 2010

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David Calma asked:

Why is it that people say olive oil-based butter is better for your health?


We put this question to Bryan Lockwood, I'm a Professor of Pharmaceutical Science at the University of Manchester:

Bryan -   Olive oil has obviously got a long historic use in food and the olives have been eaten for a long time.  By now of course, thereís plenty of other dietary oils which we use as well.  The recent increases in interest in health in westernised countries particularly those in the northern hemisphere has stimulated a vast amount of interest in research into the fat content of our diets.  Linked to this, thereís an increasing volume of epidemiological evidence which suggests that dairy and animal fats are less healthy, and this is now pretty widely understood in the medical fraternity and also, in the general public at large.

(c) Alex Ex" alt="Olive Oil" />The main reasons why olive oil is supposedly beneficial for you is that the main lipid is oleic acid or oleic acid triglyceride, and itís about 3 quarters of that, and this is a particular type of fatty acid which is unsaturated.  In fact, itís a mono unsaturated fatty acid which is accepted as being good for health.  Thereís also some poly unsaturated fatty acids which of course have been widely discussed in the lay literature as well, again, highly beneficial for your health.  

Both olive oils and seed oils in general have been showen to reduce low density lipoprotein lipid cholesterol which is abbreviated to LDL-C.  This is commonly referred to as the bad type of cholesterol.  Total cholesterol is also reduced.  The combination of these two activities generally reduces a possibility of cholesterol depositing in the arteries.

Diana -   So, olive oil is lower in saturated fat and the more olive oil there is in butter or margarine, the less dairy fat will be present, and therefore, less saturated fat.  Our expert added that olive oil also contains high levels of anti-oxidants, and that these prevent free radicals from running around inside your body, damaging cells.  But thereís no conclusive evidence that anti-oxidants when taken via food actually make that much of a difference.  But some people say, olive oil is less healthy when you fry it.  Why might this be?

Bryan -   Olive oil is quite interesting due to the high level of polyphenolics.  You can actually see in the case of virgin oils and extra virgin oils, itís a green to dark green colour.  This is judged to be of quality by the food sales people.  If you happen to heat olive oil in a frying pan or a pan and get it up to about 93 degrees centigrade, it smokes, and this is obviously degradation of the oil.  So, itís not beneficial to burn the olive oil itself, and in fact, this destroys its properties later on, so its anti-oxidant activity is dramatically decreased.

Diana -   So there you are.  Olive oil smokes slightly earlier than other oils, but if the clinical trials are anything to go by, it may be that losing a few anti-oxidants isnít a great loss.  


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Without any concrete lab tests to back my theories, I can only bring some lay analysis and personal observation to the table. This being the case, I think in so many cases of health related questions, people get so tied up in what's 'new' or what's 'different' from their normal routine that they'll jump on just about any bandwagon (consider acai berries vs. run of the mill blueberries).
When it comes down to it, my unwavering opinion is that a diet composed of the most locally grown, naturally produced, least treated, prodded, packaged and transported food is what will ultimately provide you with the best health effects. If that product happens to be olive oil butter or some other kind of alternative product, then so be it.

Tay Tay, Mon, 13th Sep 2010

I am with Tay on that one.

Further to this though, I think that it'll be a swings 'n roundabouts thing. For example, olive oil is rich in omega 3 and 6 fats and is mostly mono-unsaturated fat which is all better for our joints and hearts etc. On the other hand butter will be richer in calcium and other minerals, and if it is unpasteurised butter will also contain natural probiotics, enzymes, and proteins that help our immune system.

I doubt our current understanding of how diet affects us is sufficient to say one is categorically better for us than the other when they each have differing benefits and either can be very bad for us when too much is consumed. Bacon Wizard, Fri, 17th Sep 2010

I beg to differ. Butter is clearly detrimental to health when eaten regularly. I recall someone talking about cooking in Britain during the fifties who spoke of only being able to find olive oil in Britain in small bottles in a pharmacy. So it isn't surprising to me that a great deal of ignorance persists locally.

Here is what may be found at the website of the Mayo clinic in Minnesota, Let me point out that the dairy industry is a major force in that state so nobody speaks against butter frivolously in the gopher state.

"From Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D.

When choosing fats, olive oil is a healthy choice. Olive oil contains monounsaturated fat, a healthier type of fat that can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing the total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol levels in your blood.

In contrast, saturated and trans fats ó such as butter, animal fats, tropical oils and partially hydrogenated oils ó increase your risk of heart disease by increasing your total and LDL cholesterol levels.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consuming about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil a day may reduce your risk of heart disease. You can get the most benefit by substituting olive oil for saturated fats rather than just adding more olive oil to your diet.

All types of olive oil contain monounsaturated fat, but "extra-virgin" or "virgin" olive oils are the least processed forms, so they're the most heart healthy. Those types contain the highest levels of polyphenols, a powerful antioxidant that also can promote heart health. "

MartinTheK, Sat, 18th Sep 2010

I would like to add as a postscript that I just had some delicious corn on the cob dressed with a butter substitute which is marketed here in California. Olive oil doesn't quite do it on sweet corn. Whereas butter has 9 grams of fat/tablespoon , this stuff has 5 and is reputed to lower your LDL. I don't know if the jury is in on that last bit, but if you use it sparingly in place of butter you don't feel like such a martyr. There is a lot of marketing hype on "butter substitutes" but if you read the label and look for one whose name starts with a "b" (not Blue Bonnet margarine) you might be pleasantly surprised. MartinTheK, Sat, 18th Sep 2010

Ha, ha, ha, ha!

So you expect us to to take the promoters of this stuff seriously? Geezer, Sun, 19th Sep 2010

Ha, ha, ha, ha!

So you expect us to to take the promoters of this stuff seriously?

LOL Bored chemist, Sun, 19th Sep 2010

I wouldn't dream of hazarding an opinion on the physiology of the Sassenach race any more than I would the bandar-log. You are welcome to eat as much of whatever you may wish and good luck to you. Knock yourselves out.

The question  was whether butter was more or less healthy than olive oil. Not who can dazzle us with ever more sniggering displays of (it says here) "wit". MartinTheK, Sun, 19th Sep 2010

It occurred to me while I was having lunch at the Cafe Citi next to the Einkiddu winery in Kenwood, that some of the gentle readers may wonder how to get more olive oil into their diet.

My lunch started with fresh sourdough bread dipped in a saucer of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, followed by a tomato, mozzarella, basil salad (dressed in olive oil and vinegar), and finished up with the main course of polenta (fried in guess what?) with a pesto sauce (containing olive oil).

The thought of butter never crossed my mind. MartinTheK, Sun, 19th Sep 2010

Yep, we all know the research on the omegas and fatty acids. Isn't funny how we automatically presume that the latest research contains all the best information as if it isn't likely that next week someone will discover the converse is true.  Take the much maligned butter (although currently scientifically more harmful than olive oil) which tastes better on most things if you were raised on it. (my children prefer margarine/olive spreads because they were raised on them). Some of the latest research discusses the amazing anti-cancer and anti inflammatory effects in the colon and other areas, of butyric acid.  How do we get butyric acid into the colon? Butter. I'm not saying it's necessarily "better" but it may not be the arch nemesis of olive oil.  It may be one of many nutritional partners required to maintain our health.


Grover Grover, Mon, 20th Sep 2010

Paula Deen would probably agree with you Grover. Geezer, Mon, 20th Sep 2010

Ah but in order to make the olive oil into a butter, mostly solid at UK room temperature, they hydrogenate it.  This removes some, if not all of the double bonds and makes it more of a saturated fat thus removing the health benefits.
John ejohnchat, Fri, 2nd May 2014

I have recently found information that suggests that olive oil opens the gall bladder and helps release gall stones. Those stones are mostly cholesterol that have probably been formed from butter and various meats in the diet. I might venture to suggest that olive oil (in its liquid form) is the opposite of butter in, at least, some of its effects. Cosmos, Fri, 2nd May 2014

Lifestyle is important when evaluating this kind of question. Dairy products high in saturated fats seem particularly damaging to people living relatively sedentary lives. On the other hand, the Amish have a far higher than average consumption of full-fat dairy products (using industrialised nations as the yardstick), but suffer well-below average rates of cardiovascular disease. The fact that their levels of physical activity are many times higher than average may have something to do with it. dlorde, Fri, 2nd May 2014

Just cook on a low heat, to sum it up basically. Dan, Sat, 24th Sep 2016

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