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:

  1. Seed oils
  2. Water
  3. Salt
  4. Milk
  5. Less than 1% preservatives
  6. 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.

Bots. D.M.L. and Katan, M.B. (2001). ‘Replacement of dietary saturated fatty acids by trans fatty acids lowers serum HDL cholesterol and impairs endothelial function in healthy men and women.’ National Centre for Biotechnology Information, 21(7) pp1233–7.

Enig, M. (2012). ‘A Response to the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers.’ Available at: 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: 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.

Willett, W.C. et al. (1993). ‘Intake of trans fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease among women.’ National Centre for Biotechnology Information, 6:341(8845) pp581–5.

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.

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