Margarine vs. Butter
For many years people have debated the merits of
guns versus butter as symbols of spending on military might or
domestic comfort. Since 1869, another political debate has
gone on, this one concerning the merits of margarine versus butter.
In that year, a French food chemist succeeded in making a cheap
substitute for the real thing, which had become scarce and expensive
in the wake of a European cattle plague.
The word margarine came from the Greek for "pearl,"
because the original version was hard, white, and glossy. It
also must have been less than appetizing, since it was made from
beef fat, milk, and chopped sheep's stomachs and cows' udders, all
treated with heat, lye, and pressure.
In its early years, margarine was a meat product
which was dependent on the beef and dairy industries and whose main
appeal was its low cost relative to butter. In this period, it
was exclusively a food of the poor. In the early 1900s, food
chemists discovered how to harden liquid oils by reacting them with
hydrogen in the presence of metal catalysts and heat.
Vegetable and fish oils then became raw materials for margarine,
weakening its ties to the meat industry. Manufacturers bought
up the cheapest oils they could find throughout the world, reduced
them all to bland neutrality through chemical processing, and
hardened them into margarine, which remained a food of the poor.
By the 1920s only vegetable oils went into the
product, and over the next 30 years, busy food chemists using a host
of chemical additives greatly improved the spreadability,
appearance, and especially the flavor of margarine, always working
toward the goal of greater resemblance to butter.
The improved margarine's appeal was still its lower
cost, but now its sales increased enormously, seriously threatening
the butter industry. The butter people responded with a bitter
and dirty political fight to hamper sales of margarine, but in the
end, they were to lose out because of an unforeseen change in
consumer perceptions. In our lifetimes, people have come to
see margarine not simply as a cheap substitute for butter, but as a
healthy alternative to it, and this change has occurred particularly
among the educated and affluent. For example, when I look in
the refrigerators of fellow physicians, I find margarine instead of
butter more often than not.
This new view of margarine, which North Americans
now consume four times as much of as butter, developed along with an
awareness of the role of saturated fat and cholesterol in producing
atherosclerosis, the degenerative condition of arteries that
predisposes us to heart attacks, strokes, and other circulatory
diseases. Butterfat is the most saturated animal fat in the
American diet, and butter contains a lot of cholesterol as well.
As doctors became convinced of the dangers of saturated fat and
cholesterol, they began to recommend margarine to patients, and the
margarine industry capitalized on this development by emphasizing
new formulations made exclusively from polyunsaturated vegetable
oils, like safflower, corn, and soy. Producers also stressed
that margarine contains no cholesterol. So it is that doctors,
like other health-conscious Americans, tended to switch from butter
to margarine. Many of these people will admit that they prefer
the taste of butter but consider margarine better for them.
I do not share this view, and I predict that over
the next decade, medical research will demonstrate clear health
hazards of eating margarine.
In the first place, it is total fat in the diet that
correlates with risk of premature death and disability from the
major killing diseases in our society. If there is one
undisputed fact that emerges from the confusion of modern
nutritional research, it is that typical high-fat diets are killing
us. Most people will live longer, feel better, and have less
risk of early death from heart disease, stroke, and cancer if they
keep their fat intake to well below 30 percent of calories in the
diet, preferably in the range of 20 percent. This is much less
than most Americans eat. One way to cut down on fat is to
avoid both butter and margarine, especially as spreads for bread,
and toppings for potatoes and other vegetables. It is easy to
learn to like good bread without anything on it and to enjoy fresh
vegetables plain or with low-fat sauces.
Second, although the danger to our hearts and
arteries from saturated fat in the diet is clear, many people do not
understand that the process of hardening vegetable oils by
artificial hydrogenation creates saturated fat. In
fact, the chemical term "saturation" refers to the percentage of
carbon atoms in fats that are bonded fully with hydrogen atoms.
The more saturated a fat, the higher the temperature at which it
When stored in the refrigerator, polyunsaturated
vegetable oils remain clear and still pour easily. Saturated
fats like beef suet, bacon grease, and butter become opaque and hard
in the cold. No matter how unsaturated the oils are that go
into margarine, they are made more saturated by the very process
that turns them into a harder spread. Most brands of margarine
do not disclose the percentage of saturated fat they contain, and
even though they contain no cholesterol, they still stimulate your
body to make cholesterol when you eat them. So the
"heart-friendly" advantage of margarine over butter is not so great
as advertised. Butter, unless it is certified as "organic," is
likely to contain residues of drugs given to cows.
Butter may also contain residues of pesticides and
other environmental toxins. All of these compounds tend to
concentrate in fat, making high-fat dairy products more dangerous
than lowfat or, especially, nonfat ones. Of course, butter is
the ultimate high-fat dairy product. Margarine should be free
of drugs, but depending on where its oils come from, it may contain
pesticide residues and other toxins. It may also have dozens
of chemical additives. So on this score, butter and margarine
probably rate about the same.
The most significant area of comparison is the
different chemical structures of the component fatty acids of the
two. Butter is basically a natural product, and its fatty
acids are structurally similar to the fatty acids in our bodies.
The heat and chemicals used to transform vegetable oils into
margarine change fatty acids into unnatural forms that may be most
unhealthy to eat.
Unsaturated fatty acids have points of molecular
strain, where carbon atoms are connected to each other by double or
triple bonds instead of being fully occupied by hydrogen atoms.
These strain points determine the three-dimensional configurations
In nature, all of these molecules have a curved
shape that allows them to fit neatly into the membranes that enclose
all cells and many of the structures within them. Chemists
call this natural shape the cis-configuration. Heat and
harsh chemical treatment can cause unsaturated fatty acids to spring
open into a different shape called the trans-configuration,
which looks jointed instead of curved.
The body cannot incorporate trans-fatty acids
into membranes, and if it tries to do so, deformed cellular
structures may result. Eating trans-fatty acids in
margarine, vegetable shortening, and partially hydrogenated
vegetable oils probably increases cancer risks, promotes
inflammation, and accelerates aging and degenerative changes in
tissues. I am convinced enough of these possibilities to try
to eliminate those fats from my diet.
Many people ask me whether I think it is better to
eat butter or margarine. They should be asking whether it is
worse to eat butter or margarine, because both are
concentrated fats that contribute to the unhealthy excess of fat
calories that most of us consume. I don't keep either of them
in my house. But if I were forced to make a choice, I'd take
the real thing in modest amounts, and I recommend that choice to you
ANDREW WEIL teaches at the University of Arizona
College of Medicine, has a private medical practice, and is the
author of Natural Health, Natural Medicine (Houghton Mifflin,
NaturoDoc's Take: Many researchers and
physicians have a problem with the recent dietary fad of
low-calorie, low-fat dietary advice. Significant physical
effects are created by different types of oil and fat. This
article correctly identifies major problems with commercial handling
of fats and oils. But most low-fat products are high in simple
carbohydrates, and the quickly elevated blood sugar from eating
these creates even more misery and disease than a high-fat diet.
Pass The Butter, Please!
--Author unknown, but good truthful information
Did you know that the hydrogenated fat they use in fast food
restaurants in the deep-fat fryers was originally designed as candle
wax? When it didn't work as planned, they looked for a new use for
it, and found it worked great for frying foods and never going bad.
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. More
recently, they have come out with some clever new flavorings.
DO YOU KNOW...
the difference between margarine and butter?
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
Harvard Medical School study.
Eating butter increases the absorption of many other nutrients in other
foods. Butter has many nutritional benefits, where margarine has a
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, which...
- Is very high in trans-fatty acids.
- Triples the risk of coronary heart disease.
- Increases total cholesterol and LDL (the bad cholesterol), and
lowers HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol).
- Increases the risk of cancers up to fivefold.
- Lowers the quality of breast milk.
- Decreases the immune response.
- Decreases the insulin response.
And here's the most disturbing fact...
Margarine is but ONE MOLECULE away from being PLASTIC. This fact alone
is enough to make you want to avoid margarine for life, as well as anything else that is
hydrogenated. (This means that 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 a 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 will not rot or smell differently, because it
has NO nutritional value. Nothing will grow on it. Even tiny microorganisms will not a find a home to grow
on. Why? Because
margarine is nearly plastic.
Would you melt your Tupperware and spread that on your toast?
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