Butter has, on average, 20 times the trans fat levels of most Australian margarines, according to an investigation done by the Australian Heart Foundation and published in the October issue of the food safety journal Food Australia.

“Butter is mostly made of the fat that raises your bad cholesterol levels–saturated fat at around 50 percent and trans fat at more than 4 percent,”  said Susan Anderson, the Heart Foundation’s National Director Healthy Weight.  Compare those figures to Australian margarine spreads, which are about 14 percent saturated fat and 0.2 percent trans fat, and margarine is clearly the healthier choice, she said.

Trans fat, whether manufactured or occurring naturally, is bad for the heart, the foundation points out.

The foundation began challenging Australian manufacturers to remove trans fats in margarines many years ago, and now says the  trans fat levels in almost all margarines in Australia are amongst the lowest in the world.  They “cannot be compared to those available in other countries, especially not the U.S.,” according to the Heart Foundation.

The Heart Foundation said there is a common misconception that butter, which is known as “natural” is better than margarine, which many write off as  “highly processed.”

That margarine is now a healthier option than butter in Australia “‘will come as a big surprise to many people who choose butter believing that it’s ‘natural’ and therefore healthier – but it simply isn’t the case,” Anderson said.

Being natural isn’t a reliable indicator of healthiness on its own, the foundation notes.  Many so-called natural foods–such as lard, sea salt or coconut oil–are not healthy and butter, in addition to containing more unhealthy fat, also contains twice as much salt as margarine.

Butter sales in Australia have increased dramatically, up 9.3 percent in 2009 alone, a rise the Heart Foundation attributes to popular TV cooking shows, chefs and food magazines all using butter in their recipes.

“The Heart Foundation is calling on cooks and chefs to switch from butter to margarine and healthy oils for the sake of Australians’ health.  They both perform similar functions, so butter can be easily substituted for margarine when baking, and oils such as canola can be used in sautéing and in mashed potatoes,” said Anderson.

Other research indicates that Australian women have higher LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels than men, and  the Heart Foundation urged women to evaluate their lifestyles and change any habits that exacerbate the risk of heart disease.  According to the foundation, switching from butter to margarine is a good way to start.

For more information or to see the official media release, go to The Heart Foundation’s website.  The foundation provides a Frequently Asked Questions about Butter vs. Margarine page on its website.