Butter added to a pan. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Question: Can you help me sort through the range of butters and spreads in the supermarket today? It’s so confusing, especially related to the latest guidance around saturated fat and cholesterol.

Answer: It’s confusing, for sure! “The hype about healthiness strewn across the packaging makes sorting out which butter, margarine or spreads to buy particularly confusing,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Janet Brill, a cardiovascular disease prevention expert and author of “Blood Pressure Down.”

So let’s get some perspective.

Butter and margarine basics

We’ve eaten butter, made by churning cream or milk to separate out the butterfat, for thousands of years. Margarine came into existence in 1869 when the emperor of France, Napoleon III, ran a contest for a low-cost butter replacement.

Both are defined and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Butter must be made from milk or cream or both and contain at least 80 percent milk fat. Margarine must not be less than 80 percent fat. The names “spread” and “buttery spread” are manufacturer-created terms that allow companies to work around those standards.

Margarine’s popularity soared in the 1980s as a butter substitute with less saturated fat and no cholesterol for people with heart health concerns. Margarine sales plummeted in the late 1990s because of the uproar over man-made trans-fat and the connection between trans-fat and cardiovascular disease. At that time many margarines contained partially hydrogenated oils (a.k.a. trans-fats).

Today’s nutrition advice

As nutrition advice has evolved, it has influenced butters, margarines and spreads more than other food categories. Case in point: Most margarines now contain no or nearly no trans-fat.

The recently published 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report can guide your decisions about which spreads to drop in your cart.

A change in this report that rattled the cages of some nutrition experts, including Brill, was removing cholesterol from the list of nutrients of concern. The rationale: Research shows cholesterol in foods doesn’t cause cardiovascular disease. Conversely, the committee kept saturated fat on the nutrients of concern list, with research showing we eat too much of it and that correlates to our high incidence of cardiovascular disease. “This advice isn’t particularly practical because saturated fat and cholesterol often keep company with each other in foods,” said Brill, noting butter as an example.

As to what types of fats to eat, research and the report promote using more polyunsaturated fats and oils (corn, soybean, and sunflower oils) with monounsaturated fats and oils (safflower, canola and olive oil) a second choice.

To the supermarket aisle

All fats, whether butter or liquid vegetable oil, contain varying amounts of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. That’s why there’s a bit of saturated fat in vegetable oil-based margarines. Stick butter contains the most saturated fat and cholesterol.

An array of vegetable- and seed-based oils is used in spreads and margarines. Many margarines use mainly soybean oil, a polyunsaturated fat, with palm and palm kernel oil, which are higher in saturated fat. Interestingly, a few butter blends that brag they’re made with canola or olive oil on their packaging contain mainly soybean oil. Others contain only butter and canola or olive oil.

Then there are a few spreads with a blend of vegetable oil and non-fat yogurt and others touting their omega-3 fat content or their GMO free, soy-free and/or vegan status.

Overwhelmed? Here are some simple tips to shop by:

● Learn where saturated fat lurks, then lower your intake. “Read the nutrition facts closely. Purchase spreads with no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving,” Brill said. Her preference is the lighter spreads with 50 calories per serving.

● Read the nutrition label. FDA regulations require manufacturers to list the nutrition information for certain nutrients. In addition, if a claim is made (for instance, “contains omega-3s”), information about that nutrient must be provided. Manufacturers can voluntarily provide additional information.

●Peruse the ingredients. They must be listed in descending order of predominance (by weight). Look closely at which oils are listed and in what order.

●Track trans-fats. FDA regulations allow manufacturers to label products with less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat per serving (one tablespoon) as zero trans-fat. Scan the ingredients for “partially hydrogenated oil.” That’s trans-fat.

● Replace butter in cooking and some baking. “Spreads that contain 60 percent or more oil can be used in place of stick butter or margarine but not for baked goods that require precise amounts of fat and moisture, like pie crusts,” said Diane Welland, a District-based registered dietitian, author and consultant to the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers. Better yet, find recipes for baked goods that call for healthful oils.

● Skip butter or spreads when possible. Use vegetable-, seed- and nut-based oils containing mainly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats instead.

Stock the fridge

Curious what a dietitian keeps at home? Here’s what Brill, Welland and I use.

● I use healthful oil whenever and wherever possible. I also keep stick butter for occasional food preparation and baking, and buttery spread with canola oil for bread, toast or crackers, using both infrequently and in small portions.

●Welland avoids butter and stocks a variety of spreads for their convenience.

●Brill avoids butter and instead uses the light version of an oil-and-yogurt blend. She bakes with olive oil or applesauce and spreads hummus or avocado on bread for sandwiches.

Nutrition facts

Based on a composite sampling of currently available national brands of butter, margarine and spreads. Serving = 1 Tbsp. (Source: Hope Warshaw.)

Calories Fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Trans-
Fat (g)
Poly-unsaturated Fat (g) Mono-unsaturated Fat (g) Cholesterol (mg)
Butter
(in sticks)
100 11 7 0 Not listed Not Listed 30
Butter (in sticks), light 50 6 4 0 Not listed Not listed 15
Butter/oil blends (in tubs), regular 90 9 4 0 1.5 4 15
Butter/oil blends (in tubs), light 50 5 2 0 1.5 2.0 3
“Buttery” spreads (tubs), regular 70 8 2 0 3.5 1.5 0
Spread, blend of oil and nonfat yogurt 100 11 2 0 3 6 0
Spread, blend of oil and nonfat yogurt, light 45 5 2 0 2.5 1 0
Margarine (in sticks) 90 10 3 1.5 3 3 0
Margarine (in tubs), regular 100 11 3 0 5 3 0
Margarine (in tubs), light 50 5 1 0 2.5 1.5 0