What’s Better for You: Butter or Margarine? Red Wine or White?

Here’s the latest research on smart food choices as we age


In the world of nutrition, certain debates seem to ping pong back and forth. Like the issue of butter vs. margarine. Or the battle between coffee and tea. It all starts when a new study comes along that seems to give a leg up to one food choice above the other. So the debate over healthy food choices marches on.

Here’s a deeper look at the current line of thinking on four of these popular food duels:

Bone Broth vs. Stock

With the Paleo diet movement and athletes like Kobe Bryant singing the praises of bone broth, you might be ready to ditch the homemade stock. But when culinary experts at Bon Appetit magazine turned to bone broth guru and chef Marco Canora, he told them that technically, bone broth is stock.

So what Paleo cooks are labeling bone broth is stock (mostly bones) that cooks for long periods of time, often 16 hours or more. Does that offer a health edge? Maybe.

“Fat, protein and minerals like calcium, phosphorus and iron from bone tissue dissolves into the water when making bone broth,” says Hannah Meier, a registered dietitian at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “So along with flavor, you also get a boost of nutrients not present in typical beef or vegetable stock.”

What about all the other health claims for bone broth? Most of what has been reported is just anecdotal and not the stuff of evidence-based medicine, says William Percy, an associate professor at the University of South Dakota’s Sanford School of Medicine.

For instance, the idea that collagen in bone broth helps support bones is just wishful thinking. It’s not how the body works, Percy says. The gut breaks down all that collagen into amino acids that are then used anywhere the body needs them.

The winner: Bone broth offers a slight nutrition edge with its higher concentrations of minerals. But don’t go all gaga over the stuff. Adds Percy: “It is not some type of ‘miracle food source’ with the ability to cure a multitude of aches, pains and diseases all by itself.”

Coffee vs. Tea

There are numerous studies that report all kinds of benefits — or no benefits — for both tea and coffee. In the last 12 months, researchers have found that drinking tea may help ward off dementia in older adults and that drinking coffee or tea may help prevent stiffness of the liver.

As Next Avenue has reported, other studies have provided happy news for coffee lovers about java and longevity.

Rather than agonize over each and every new study that pits these two beverages against each other, experts say, choose a favorite. “Coffee and tea are both associated with positive health outcomes when included as part of an otherwise healthful and balanced diet,” says Meier.

Older adults need to keep two caveats in mind, however.

First, “syrups, sugar and cream can transform a basic mug of Joe into something that rivals a cup of gelato,” Meier says. Same goes for all the sugar in many hot and iced teas.

Second, caffeine is a powerful stimulant that can impact the heart. “Be aware that even decaffeinated coffee and black tea can contain up to 10 mg of caffeine per cup,” Meier says. For those sensitive to caffeine, “the only truly caffeine-free choice is herbal tea, like chamomile or peppermint, which is not brewed with tea leaves but rather herbs and spices.” Note: green tea is made from tea leaves and is not herbal tea.

The winner: Too close to call. Both coffee and tea are rich in beneficial antioxidants that may boost health. Either is a good choice.

Butter vs. Margarine

A few years ago, news headlines screamed “Butter is back.” The reason: A 2014 British Journal of Medicine study found no link between saturated fat and risk for cardiovascular disease or stroke. But many experts questioned the findings, and so the issue of butter versus margarine continues to be hotly debated.

Is there a clear winner? The American Heart Association suggests using soft, trans-fat-free spreads instead of butter or stick margarine. But some other health experts favor butter over margarine and spreads.

“I’d rather people use something natural like butter, preferably grass-fed butter, than some kind of margarine, something that is so chemically produced,” says Kate Patton, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic’s Heart & Vascular Institute. She cites a couple of reasons.

First, Patton says, “the American diet has way too much of the omega-6 fats that research links to inflammation. Margarines are made with corn, safflower and all those omega 6-rich oils.”

Second, when vegetable oils are made into solid sticks of margarine, some of the fat is converted to trans fats — fats that in even minuscule amounts are dangerous, cautions Patton. “They’ve been shown to increase LDL, or ‘bad’ cholesterol, and lower HDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol. We need the monounsaturated fats, the polyunsaturated fats and even some saturated fat,” says Patton, “but we don’t need trans fats.”

Doesn’t butter contain artery-clogging saturated fat? “There’s room in the diet for some saturated fat,” explains Patton. “A lot of the patients we see at the Institute have high cholesterol levels. So we advise no more than 5 to 6 percent of daily calories come from saturated fat. On the average 2,000-calorie diet, that’s 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat.”

Since one tablespoon of butter contains seven grams of saturated fat, spreading it lightly is key. Bottom line: Let’s not demonize butter, but let’s not eat it with abandon, either. Small amounts are fine as part of a heart healthy diet.

The winner: “Butter is better,” says Patton. Still partial to spreads that use yogurt or olive oil or other healthful ingredients? Patton rates them here.

Red Wine vs. White Wine

For decades, red wine has been singled out for its role in improving cholesterol levels and heart health, while white wine remained on the sidelines.

But one new study suggests that wine color may not matter when it comes to heart health.

In the 2017 In Vino Veritas study, European scientists followed a small group of wine drinkers — half drank red wine and half drank a white chardonnay-pinot — for one year. What they found: all 157 study participants who sipped wine (either color) were able to lower their LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels significantly.

So is white wine on the road to becoming an equal to red?

“I don’t think there’s enough research to say one way or the other,” says Patton. “The only slight difference is that the skins are left on for red wine, but they’re taken off with white wine.” And since the skins contain antioxidants, red wines might be a little higher in that substance.

But Patton says Cleveland Clinic uses diet guidelines from the landmark 2013 Predimed study (Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet) where researchers found that a traditional Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or tree nuts can reduce the risk of heart attack, death from cardiovascular disease or stroke by a whopping 30 percent. “There was no control in the type of wine they drank in this study,” says Patton. “And both groups had reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.”

The winner: Your choice, but keep to one serving (five ounces) daily for women and two for men. And resist overdoing it. “You can’t just save up those daily servings and drink them all at once and get the same benefits,” says Patton.

By Maureen Callahan
Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the Health.com diet book review series. She is a two-time James Beard Award winner.