Interesting question. Currently, we again have a big push to switch tasty, natural butter for artificial spreads or margarine, because, we are told, they are better for our heart health, and better for our waistline. The spreads look harmless enough. When I opened a carton recently, it looked inviting, smooth, pale yellow, soft, and spreadable. I am not sure about the taste though. Even the health organisations pushing margarine admit that our taste buds will have to adjust in time, and it is about our priorities.
But is margarine really better for our health?
I recently offered the choice of butter or margarine to some ants, to see what they thought. Ants are simple creatures. They ignore non-food items, and swarm on food items. And, they favour some food over others. Their favourite food is proteins, which we observe daily if our cats leave a few strands of raw meat behind on their dinner plate. As a young child, I grew up without a television, so I spent a lot more time in nature than most. One of my favoured activities was sitting in the gutter feeding ants. I found them fascinating, watching the trails they made, and observing which items they would pick up and take to their nest, and which they ignored.
This is hardly a controlled, scientific study, but it is a very interesting observation, which speaks volumes. I left a plate wit one knob of butter, and two knobs of margarine (one was cholesterol-lowering) for the entire day, and took pictures at intermittent times.
The results? Interesting. The ants would not touch the margarine. I don’t know how you feel, but if we know ants won’t go near margarine, what are these artificial substances doing to our bodies? We are gobbling them down at an alarming rate. As I observed the ants, I frequently saw a lone ant approach the margarine, and once they hit a certain point, they would abruptly turn around and walk the other way. Meanwhile, they swarmed on the butter all day long.
In addition, hundreds of scientific studies have come to the same conclusion; the evidence that margarine is damaging, and NOT food, is undeniable.
Would we substitute petrol in our car for ‘fake petrol’ and expect it to run? No? Why then, do we think we can use fake butter and expect our body to function?
What is margarine?
We are continually reassured that margarine is just as natural as butter, but is it?
Once saturated fat had become the new ‘demon’ of health, we needed a substitute with similar properties to saturated fats like butter and lard. We needed solid fats for quality baking and for spreading on bread.
Because saturated fat has more hydrogen atoms than unsaturated, manufacturers add more hydrogen atoms using a process called hydrogenation; the chemists call the process ‘plasticisation’. The process starts with a very cheap vegetable oil, which is already damaged. The oil is heated to extremely high temperatures again (which damages the oil and creates free radicals), strong pressure is applied, and the hydrogen is forced into the structure of the oil to make it solid. This might not sound too bad, but they need to use toxic chemicals, for example, nickel oxide, to force the change in molecular structure.
And, the process isn’t finished yet. At this point, this chemically altered substance isn’t a replica of butter at all; it is actually grey and smelly. They bleach and deodorise it by using chemicals and more high temperatures. And, to make it resemble butter, they add artificial flavours and colours.
The hydrogenation process creates a different, unnatural molecule (a trans bond), which doesn’t occur anywhere in nature. ‘Health’ organisations love to say that trans fats occur in natural foods, including butter. Small amounts of trans fats exist in natural foods, but they aren’t dangerous. The man-made trans fats are a completely different story; they disrupt our natural bodily processes because our body doesn’t recognise their structure.
I remember my mother telling me that when she was young, the margarine came home from the store white, accompanied by a container of yellow colouring to mix through. At that time, it was illegal for companies to sell it yellow so people couldn’t mistake it for butter. The colour had to be mixed in at home.
The problem with margarine isn’t just the trans fats, it is a whole host of other things, including free radicals, synthetic vitamins, emulsifiers and preservatives, hexane and other solvents, bleach, artificial flavours, and sterols (added to lower cholesterol, but have been shown to inhibit sexual function). They also contain mono-and di-glycerides, which contain trans fats that don’t have to be declared on the label, and are used liberally in the spreads that are classified as ‘low-trans’.
But wait? Surely we would see all that stuff on the label? Not so. A lot of it doesn’t have to be on the label because it is part of the manufacturing process, not an ingredient.
The margarine companies and conventional health organisations like to tell us that margarine is very natural and isn’t processed any more than butter. One health organisation says, ‘Just as milk is taken from the cow to make butter, oil is extracted from plant seeds to make margarine.’ This statement is blatantly false, and anyone who has ever worked in a plant processing oils into margarine could attest to that.
One of the popular brands is ‘proud’ to show their ingredients:
- Seed oils
- Less than 1% preservatives
- Less than 0.5% colour and flavour
The ingredients are advertised with a rosy picture to make it look all pretty and natural. Even though it is a pretty picture, they have admitted to adding the preservatives, colours and flavours. And the seed oils have gone through the process I described above; all the nasties used to process the oils don’t need to be on the label—remember they are part of the process, not ingredients.
How does that sound? And this is the healthy alternative to protect us from heart disease? And, the ironic thing is, research shows that one of the biggest side effects to consuming these rancid, toxic, damaged fats is heart disease.
Butter has been falsely accused and replaced by the very substance that does contribute to heart disease. Actually, that pretty much sums up conventional ‘heart healthy’ advice. If we do the opposite of just about everything we are told, we may get it right. One day people will look back at the history books and shake their heads in disbelief.
And it gets worse. Not only does the research show that these damaged fats increase risk for heart disease, they also increase risk for cancer, bone issues, hormonal problems, skin disease, infertility, problems with pregnancy and lactation, low birth weight, growth problems, learning disabilities and disruption of satiety signals (causing people to overeat). In addition, they have been proven to cause weight gain and damage our immune system.
These toxic oils can also contribute to skin cancer. It seems logical that the sun would be the cause of any skin cancer, but trans fats can interfere with the enzyme system that helps our body to repair damage from ultraviolet light, to detoxify and to eliminate carcinogens. And, most of us are now vitamin D deficient because we now fear the sun; the ironic thing here is that studies show that the vitamin D produced by sunlight protects us against skin cancer. I write a lot more about this in The Fat Revolution.
These damaged fats aren’t just in margarine; they are in a whole host of processed food products because they are cheap. They are normally identified on the label as hydrogenated vegetable oil, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil/fat.
Because margarines and spreads are SO damaging, and have been directly linked to serious health problems like heart disease, cancer and much more, I believe that those who continue to assert that margarine is a healthier choice could be putting themselves at risk for future litigation. Especially since we have known, without a doubt, about the damaging side effects since the 1980s, and have chosen to completely ignore the evidence.
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Enig, M. (2012). ‘A Response to the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers.’ Available at: https://www.westonaprice.org/know-your-fats/margarine-manufactures Accessed January 2012.
Gillman, M.W. et al. (1997). ‘Margarine intake and subsequent coronary heart disease in men.’ National Centre for Biotechnology Information, 8(2) pp144–9.
Griguol Chulich, V.I., León-Camacho, M. and Vicario Romero, I.M. (2005). ‘Margarine’s trans-fatty acid composition: modifications during the last decades and new trends’ National Centre for Biotechnology Information, 55(4) pp367–73.
Karbowska, J. and Kochan, Z. (2011). ‘Trans-fatty acids–effects on coronary heart disease.’ National Centre for Biotechnology Information, 31(181) pp56–9.
Kummerow, F.A. (2009). ‘The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them.’ National Centre for Biotechnology Information, 205(2):458–65.
Mozaffarian, D. et al. (2007). ‘Consumption of trans fats and estimated effects on coronary heart disease in Iran.’ National Centre for Biotechnology Information, 61(8) pp1004–10.
Stop Trans Fats (2007). ‘Join the campaign to Stop Trans Fats!’ Available at: https://www.stop-trans-fat.com Accessed January 2012.
Tavani, A., Negri, E., D’Avanzo, B. and La Vecchia, C. (1997). ‘Margarine intake and risk of nonfatal acute myocardial infarction in Italian women.’ National Centre for Biotechnology Information, 51(1) pp30–2.
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Yanagi, S., Yamashita, M., Ogoshi, K. and Imai, S. (1994). ‘Comparative effects of milk, yogurt, butter, and margarine on mammary tumorigenesis induced by 7,12-dimethylbenz(a)anthracene in rats.’ National Centre for Biotechnology Information, 18(6) pp415–20.
Margarine is on the top of my “never to go in my mouth list”. Its not food. Its not fair that companies can make this sort of chemical concoction, make it pretty, then push it onto the public as a healthy alternative. Any wonder we have kids and teens acting up, their brains and bodies are poisoned.
Hi Christine, firstly congrats on a great book. i recently purchased both your books and have began changing my eating habits. I have alot of weight to lose but confident this is the best way to do it whilst looking after myself. Can you give some ideas on what else to have for breaky besides eggs. Just to break it up a bit!
I personally find eggs the easiest, but you can also have lamb chops and grilled tomato, sweet potato slice, steak and one egg, basically anything protein based.
My nan is 94 and has always eaten butter. I changed back to butter a few years ago. I’m not at all surprised to read yuor article!
I have stumbled upon your health tips in this weeks Woman’s Day and so had to google you for more information and I have started my new health journey this morning 🙂 In regards to reading your thoughts about margarine I have to ask what your thoughts are about Olivani? As I am lactose intolerant I cannot use butter and Olivani is dairy free and my only alternative-that I know of to use. What do you suggest or would you be ok with those of us who are lactose intolerant to use Olivani?
That is wonderful news. No, I wouldn’t recommend it. Most people who are lactose intolerant can handle butter because the lactose has been removed. Many nutritionists will recommend butter as the only dairy they recommend. If not, ghee is the next best thing. It is just the butter fat.
Hi, I’d love to have permission to use that pic of ants devouring butter and shunning margarine for a presentation I’m doing on gluten-free diets… Is it your pic? If so, may I have permission? If not, whose is it?
Hi Anne, yes, it is my pic, and you are most welcome to use it.
Since 2003, food manufacturers in the US label their products (following government regulations) as “0g” trans-fat, which effectively means less than 500 mg trans-fat per serving; however, no fat is entirely free of trans fats. For example, natural butterfat contains 2-5% trans-fatty acids (mainly trans-vaccenic acid, a variant of the normal vaccenic acid).
Hi Christine, I have recently purchased your books & I love them! Are you able to ‘list’ brand names of suitable butters for me please? After only one week of eating following your ideas I’ve lost 1.5 kilograms, have less tummy bloating (& gas!) & don’t feel hungry! Also, can you recommend a food shop website? I live in country SA & don’t have access to farmers markets or health food shops. Thank you, Pip x
Hi Philippa, wonderful to hear your feedback.
I am not sure of the brands in SA, but most supermarkets in QLD are now carrying organic butter, so that is your best bet. If you can’t get that, see if you can see anything with pasture fed or grass fed.
The bad news is that while hydrogenated oils and fats were being sold as the healthy alternative to saturated (animal) fats, they were doing far more damage than animal fats ever have. This is because they are remarkably high in trans fats, a by-product of the hydrogenation of oil.
I am on a fixed income & can’t afford to buy butter so I buy margarine for about half the price of butter.
This is often why people buy margarine, but as I often say, if we invest time and money in our health today, we will save immeasurable amounts of time and money later in life when others are struggling with illness and disease. Health care is extremely expensive.
My granddaughter is on a gluten, dairy and soy free diet. Is olivani spread okay for her to use.
Unfortunately, all the spreads are the same. Interestingly, most people who are intolerant to dairy can tolerate butter because it has virtually no lactose or casein.