Food Fictions: Is Margarine Better Than Butter?

Is margarine healthier than butter? Is it safer to eat at home than at a restaurant? Can you eat seafood if you're pregnant? These days there's quite a bit of conflicting advice about eating right, and it turns out a lot of us buy into a lot of food myths. Are you putting any food fables on your table?

Here are a few of the 10 myths "20/20" tackled in "Food: Myths, Lies and Straight Talk:"

Are You Safer Eating at Home?

One of the more popular local news series is about germs, food poisoning and restaurants that can make you sick. But are you more likely to get food poisoning from a restaurant or in your own home?

"20/20" picked a random couple and asked if they'd ever had a bad experience in a restaurant or thought they'd ever gotten food poisoning. Their answer? Yes.

"I had probably the worst 48 hours of food poisoning in my life, to the point where I thought it was over. I said, 'That's it. My life is officially going to end any moment now,' " said Graig Weich.

Despite the horrible experience, Weich seemed resigned to the thought that there's a food-poisoning threat lurking in all restaurants. "The truth of the matter is, is that no matter how nice a restaurant is, you don't know what's going on in the kitchen," he said.

But that's a myth and nobody knows it better than Mark Nealon, a former health inspector who now works as a consultant. He's peeked into kitchen corners for 15 years, and he showed us what sorts of standards eating establishments are held to. And they're tough.

But what about our own kitchens? Nealon agreed to look at Weich and his girlfriend, Liga's, kitchen.

The peanut brittle they had left out was not a good idea. It's an invitation to bugs, Nealon said. He suggests putting food in a vermin-proof container after it's been removed from its original packaging.

He also noticed Weich's microwave oven smelled a little funky. "When in doubt, throw it out," Nealon advises.

Kitchen sponges, it turns out, are the No. 1 cause of food poisoning in the home.

Dr. Philip Tierno, the director of microbiology and immunology at the New York University School of Medicine, says if you get sick from food more than likely you have only yourself to blame. "In reality, 50 [percent] to 80 percent of gastrointestinal infections, food-borne illnesses are caught within the home," he said.

Nealon thinks the odds of getting food poisoning at a New York City restaurant are pretty slim. "You have a better chance getting bitten by a shark walking down Broadway than you do getting food poisoning in a restaurant," he said.

Brand Names Taste Best?

Generic used to be the cheap alternative for folks who couldn't afford name brand products. The ugly boxes became synonymous with third rate. Not anymore. Now known as "store brands," the product labels look almost as slick as their name brand counterparts. But shoppers still say they prefer national brands over store brands. They say they're fresher or have better quality ingredients or just taste better.

But do they?

"We love to tell ourselves this story that we're paying a little bit extra because my family is worth it. We're paying a little bit extra for the quality. And that's just a myth," said marketing expert Seth Godin, author of "All Marketers Are Liars."

"20/20" decided to give that myth a taste test. Can shoppers in Hoboken, N.J., tell the difference?

Shoppers were asked to compare Albertson store brand Raisin Bran against Kellogg's Raisin Bran and its store brand peanut butter against Skippy Peanut Butter.

Stouffers Veggie Lasagna, Tropicana Orange Juice and Kraft cheese slices went head-to-head with Shop Rite's store brands.

And Chips Ahoy! took on Safeway's chocolate chip cookies.

The adults in our random sampling had a difficult time determining which was the store brand and which was the national brand.

And if the products taste similar, it's no accident. Many store brands are made by the exact same manufacturers.

But Godin says that doesn't matter, because we're emotionally attached to the labels we grew up with.

"The only reason you're eating ketchup is to remind you of being 3. And so the brand you had when you were 3 is the brand you're going to eat for the rest of your life," he said. "If I switch the bottles, if I put Hunt's Ketchup inside your Heinz bottle," Grodin added, "you would like it just as much."

One woman who told us she hated store brands ended up liking them better four times out of six.

In the end, the only clear national brand preferences were for Skippy and Kraft. Otherwise, the big name national brands failed to score a knockout. The humble store brands held their own -- or were even preferred -- half the time.

While "20/20's" test was unscientific, an independent study sponsored by the private label industry recently found similar results. Hundreds of tasters around the country scored it a split decision.

The real difference is in the price. The six national brand products in the taste test cost about $33, while the store brands cost $23 -- almost 30 percent less.

Butter versus Margarine

If you're a chef, there is no question: butter is better. For the rest of us, we know it tastes divine, but we also know that too much of it isn't good for you. All those saturated fats in butter raise the bad cholesterol in our bodies and clog our arteries. That's why margarine enjoyed such heavy promotion as a healthy alternative.

But just when we thought we were safe, another revelation: A leading nutritionist says that margarine contains a substance that may be very unhealthy.

"The problem arose when they tried to solidify margarine to make it look like butter in sticks. The process, called hydrogenation, created a new chemical no-no," said Yale University's Dr. David Katz.

"Unfortunately, those partially hydrogenated oils are "transfat," which I think now everybody has heard and correctly so is at least as bad for us as saturated fat, possibly worse," he said..

So what's a shopper to do? Buy butter or buy margarine? It's very confusing. Well, it depends. It turns out, all margarines are not equal. Tubs are better than sticks, because softer means fewer risks from the solidifying process. In other words, margarine is better -- if you choose the right margarine.

And that's easier than ever, Katz says, because there's a whole new generation of margarines to choose from.

"We've actually designed spreads with combinations of oils that are not only good for us, they're actually therapeutic and in some instances can be used to help bring down high cholesterol levels," Katz said.

Some of the new brands Katz cites, those that combine unsaturated oils with plant additives are: Benecol, Smart Balance and Take Control. They can be more expensive than butter -- but Katz says the benefits are priceless.

The bottom line on butter? "Butter is better than the bad margarines, the good margarines are better than butter," Katz said.

Eight Glasses a Day?

It's become a national habit. Some might even call it an obsession -- drinking eight glasses of water a day.

Wherever Americans go, their bottle of water goes with them. Two billion bottles were sold last year -- enough water to fill a medium-size lake.

Barbara Buettner says she drinks up to 10 glasses a day.

It's as if the health and beauty world has adopted a liquid mantra: 8 by 8 -- or eight 8-ounce glasses every day, for normal healthy Americans.

But how did we get here? It used to be that only the French were water crazy with their Evians and Perriers. Today, there are 74 water bottlers in the United States -- even Coke and Pepsi have their own water brands.

Dr. Heinz Valtin, professor emeritus of the Dartmouth Medical School, is a leading source when it comes to water in the body, and he says this "8 x 8" idea is a myth.

"I drink about five or six glasses per day, only one of them is water," he said.

The rest he gets from liquids such as juices coffee, tea. And it may be hard to believe, but most of his fluids come from food.

"Even a slice of white bread is more than 30 percent water," he said. "It's lots of water, 80 [percent] to 90 percent in vegetables and fruits."

Valtin spent his life studying the right balance of water in our bodies. When he retired, a prestigious medical journal asked him to find out if there really is a fountain of youth in eight glasses of water a day.

"What's wrong with the myth is that the recommendation is universal that every last one of us, including as one article said, couch potatoes, must drink at least eight, 8-ounce glasses per day," he said.

The Institute of Medicine's food and nutrition board agrees with Valtin. It says drinking eight glasses of water is not necessary, because we get plenty of fluid from our food. When our body warns us through thirst that it's time to drink something -- then drink up.