This report was researched and written by David M. White
In the late 1990’s, an email was circulated extolling the virtues of butter v. the sins of margarine. Aside from the more preposterous claims (it killed the turkeys it was invented to feed), it was largely based on health effects of the products based on margarine being high in trans fatty acids. At the time of the original email, trans fatty acids were just beginning to attract attention, and since then many countries have enforced product labeling laws to advise consumers of products that are high in trans fats. Many of the claims made are true as they relate to margarines that contain trans fats, but reformulations in the past 6 years have seen a number of margarine products that contain no trans fats.
The information as presented is part complete fabrication, part misrepresentation, and part truth. But the true parts only apply to margarines that still contain trans fats, and many now do not.
Margarine was originally manufactured to fatten turkeys. When it killed the turkeys, the people who had put all the money into the research wanted a payback so they put their heads together to figure out what to do with this product to get their money back. It was a white substance with no food appeal so they added the yellow coloring and sold it to people to use in place of butter. How do you like it? They have come out with some clever new flavorings.
DO YOU KNOW… The difference between margarine and butter?
Read on to the end…gets very interesting! Both have the same amount of calories, butter is slightly higher in saturated fats at 8 grams compared to 5 grams. Eating margarine can increase heart disease in women by 53% over eating the same amount of butter, according to a recent Harvard Medical Study.
Eating butter increases the absorption of many other nutrients in other foods. Butter has many nutritional benefits where margarine has a few only because they are added! Butter tastes much better than margarine and it can enhance the flavors of other foods. Butter has been around for centuries where margarine has been around for less than 100 years.
And now, for Margarine.. Very high in trans fatty acids, triples risk of coronary heart disease, increases total cholesterol and LDL (this is the bad cholesterol) and lowers HDL cholesterol, (the good cholesterol), Increases the risk of cancers up to five fold, lowers quality of breast milk, decreases immune response, decreases insulin response.
And here’s the most disturbing fact…. Margarine is but ONE MOLECULE away from being PLASTIC. This fact alone was enough to have me avoiding margarine for life and anything else that is hydrogenated (this means hydrogen is added, changing the molecular structure of the substance).
You can try this yourself: Purchase a tub of margarine and leave it in your garage or shaded area. Within a couple of days you will note a couple of things:
* no flies, not even those pesky fruit flies will go near it (that should tell you something)
* it does not rot or smell differently because it has no nutritional value; nothing will grow on it, even those teeny weeny microorganisms will not a find a home to grow. Why? Because it is nearly plastic. Would you melt your Tupperware and spread that on your toast?
Margarine’s invention was thanks in large part to Emperor Napoleon III of France, who was searching for a cheap substitute for butter for his Navy (and according to some more optimistic sources, it would benefit the poor as well). The prize winner was French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who in 1869 patented a process for churning beef tallow with milk to create a suitable substitute. No turkeys were involved, much less harmed, in the process.
Margarine is, in fact, white in its natural state and coloring is added to make it more visually appealing. (Considering the fact that people eat everything from souse and haggis to witchetty grubs and sheep’s brain to black pudding… why a simple white spread would be unappealing may be one of life’s greatest mysteries.) Still – even the legality of coloring margarine has been disputed over the nearly century and a half of its existence. As noted in that linked article, in one of history’s most spectacular backfires the USA dairy industry lobbying that led to the prevention of manufacturers adding food coloring to margarine spurned on a ‘pure foods’ movement in the US that led to laws being passed that prevented the dairy industry from adding additional ingredients to butter… which meant they couldn’t make it more spreadable. Margarine is spreadable and it gained in popularity. Rationing of butter in WWII pretty well cemented margarine into the food market in the US and other countries.
As far as nutritional value… a fat is a fat is a fat. And a fat has around 9 calories per gram. At that level, a couple of calories one way or the other is inconsequential.
Because the email jumps around in terms of health impact a bit, the rest of this analysis will not exactly follow the email, but address specific claims:
Whether butter tastes better is a matter of personal taste – some people actually like those flavored margarines. Others find oils such as olive oil do a better job enhancing the flavor of other foods. And clearly, having been invented in 1869, margarine has been around longer than 100 years.
As to the health impact, in the early 1990’s the impact of trans fats was first being recognized in terms of heart disease and created some significant waves in the fields of nutrition, health care and dietary science. It did not take long for legislation to catch up, or for manufacturers to begin offering reformulated margarines that contained less or no trans fat. The risks from margarines containing trans fat are undisputed – it lowers HDL and raises LDL. However the old email glosses over the heart health impact of butter. As nicely summed up in this article from Harvard Medical School Health Publications, “Today the butter-versus-margarine issue is really a false one. From the standpoint of heart disease, butter is on the list of foods to use sparingly mostly because it is high in saturated fat, which aggressively increases levels of LDL. Margarines, though, aren’t so easy to classify. The older stick margarines that are still widely sold are high in trans fats, and are worse for you than butter. Some of the newer margarines that are low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated fat, and free of trans fats are fine as long as you don’t use too much (they are still rich in calories).”
So far as the other health impacts of margarine:
There is absolutely nothing to substantiate the claim that it increases cancer risk by 5 times over normal. The quality of breast milk is impacted by the entire diet – not just by a single source of fats in the diet. However, one single study in the past 15 years indicated lower levels of trans fatty acids in breast milk from Chinese women compared to Western (Canadian) women. While previous debunking of this email forward indicated research supporting the impact of margarine on the immune system, it’s important to note that this ‘research’ was disseminated by a group that advocates a high animal fat diet. In fact, among the stated goals of that group are “establishment of universal access to clean, certified raw milk and a ban on the use of soy formula for infants.” Other sources recommend limiting any sources of fat (both butter and margarine) other than the mono-saturated variety (i.e., olive oil). Getting down to the cellular level, and more relevant to the newer products that have no trans fat, more recent research indicates “that consumption of a diet high in hydrogenated fat does not adversely affect cellular immunity.”
On insulin response, with the old trans fat varieties, the trans fat does result in increased insulin resistance. In lab rats, at least.
Margarine one molecule away from plastic: Think that’s significant? A molecule is an electrically neutral group of two or more atoms held together by covalent chemical bonds. Salt is a molecule away from being Chlorine gas – WWI’s precursor to phosgene and mustard gas. Water (H2O) is but a single ATOM from being H2O2… hydrogen peroxide – an oxidizing bleach that is extremely corrosive in high enough concentration. But you still drink water. Plastics are made of long chains of carbon and hydrogen. Margarine contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. So yes, one molecule difference. Human beings have all three of those molecules in them.
And yes, hydrogenation is essentially taking an oil (e.g., soybean, canola, or other vegetable/plant oils and adding hydrogen molecules to the chemical structure in order to make it more solid. Lot’s of products are hydrogenated – otherwise the shelf life would be measured in days instead of weeks.
And margarine does not spoil as rapidly as butter because of the hydrogenation process – which has nothing to do with plastic as we’ve already covered. As noted, the hydrogenation extends shelf life. But that also has nothing to do with a lack of mold or bacteria – those and other microorganisms need sugar or carbohydrates to grow. Butter doesn’t have those either, so you’d get the same result. It would just smell worse.
Report researched and written by David M. White