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Choosing healthier table spreads

By Mark Garavel, MS, R.D. [August 19 2010]

With so many choices for table spreads to top that morning toast or dinner vegetable, it's easier to decide once you know what to look for.

Here's a healthy tip: Opt for a spread with less (or no) trans fats, fewer calories and one that's in tub or spray form.

Traditional butter's rich taste comes with a lot of saturated fat and cholesterol, which can lead to clogged arteries (atherosclerosis). While margarine does not have cholesterol, many varieties in stick forms do have trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils), which raise the bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower the good (HDL) cholesterol. Trans fats are manufactured fats and common in baked goods.

Trans fats should be limited to less than one percent of a day's caloric intake for healthy people. They've become such a health issue that trans fats – think french fries, donuts, cookies are now banned in New York City restaurants.

Here's what you should look for in spreads:

  • No trans fats. Instead, look for spreads with a low percentage of saturated (animal) fat and higher percentage of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (the last two can help lower cholesterol).

  • Plant sterols. Found in fruits and vegetables, these may help reduce atherosclerosis risk.

  • Tub or liquid (spray) form. These forms have less saturated fat and little or no trans fat compared to some margarines.

  • Reduced-calorie spreads. These spreads should not have trans fats.


Other flavorful and healthy tips

  • When cooking, healthier alternatives to butter include olive or canola oil or a cooking spray in the pan.

  • For enhanced taste on vegetables, add a bit of salt and/or pepper. Or, roast vegetables on a baking dish at 400 degrees Fahrenheit after tossing them with a tablespoon or less of canola or olive oil, some salt, pepper and garlic.

  • Make a fat-free, Asian style sauce for vegetables and/or pasta salad by whisking together 3 tablespoons canola oil, 3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, 1/4 cup of 100 percent fruit apricot preserves, 1 tablespoon sugar (optional or use less), and 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger.

  • Add taste to breads or toast with apple butter, applesauce, honey, cinnamon, or fat-free yogurt.

  • When baking, check the recipe for alternative low-fat ingredients. Also, applesauce or other fruit purees may be used in place of oil or shortening.

  • If making a cake, try mixing 12 ounces of diet soda with a cake mix; don't use the egg or oil as listed on the box. Spray a 9” x 13” cake pan with non-stick spray and bake according to package instructions.


Mark Garavel is manager of Clinical Nutrition at The Hospital of Central Connecticut. Learn more about nutrition counseling.