Butter vs. Margarine: Which is Better

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I still am not sure which is better for a person, butter or margarine. Most of our friends have gone back to using butter for everything but my husband still thinks that margarine is better for one’s heart. I would appreciate your opinion on this please.

I’m afraid your friends are right on this one – butter is better for you than any imitation butter spread and it always has been. How we ever got to the idea that rich natural butter, the stuff that has been keeping our ancestors robust and healthy for generations, was somehow inferior to a product that was created by men in white coats in a laboratory is a sad comment on human gullibility.

The case against butter is generally based on two misconceptions – the first is that saturated fat, of which butter is about 65%, leads to raised cholesterol levels, clogged arteries and heart disease. The second is that eating cholesterol, which you’ll find about 30mg per tablespoon in butter, will increase the cholesterol levels in your bloodstream, again leading to clogged arteries and heart disease.

This view has dominated the public mindset for the last 50 years. Everyone “knows” it to be a fact as it is subject to little open debate. As Dr. Malcolm Kendrick, well known critic of the fat/cholesterol hypothesis, puts it, “to question this theory is to risk being placed on the same shelf as flat-earthers and creationists“.

In 1954 Ancel Key’s “Seven Countries Study” was published, demonstrating clear links between saturated fat intake and heart disease. Unfortunately, the study was seriously flawed. While the seven countries chosen showed a clear link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease, the other 16 countries that Keys examined did not show any such correlation. Keys simply discarded the data from the countries that didn’t conform to his hypothesis. Today, this study is often cited now as a demonstration on how not to do research. Yet saturated fat has been touted as “bad fat” ever since.

The idea that cholesterol consumption leads to high blood levels of cholesterol is similarly flawed. It’s based on the infamous “rabbit study” in which rabbits were fed on fat and cholesterol and developed fatty deposits in the inner lining of their arteries. Rabbits are herbivores; they’re not designed to eat cholesterol. Humans are. The results of this study showed what happened when rabbits were fed an unnatural diet, not what cholesterol consumption does to humans. None the less, when incidences of heart disease began to sharply rise in the 1940s, many researchers blamed the high fat and cholesterol diet based on the results of this study.

Right from the get-go there were serious flaws pointed out in the dietary cholesterol hypothesis. Even Ancel Keys, whose “Seven Countries Study” helped start the myth was quoted as saying, “There’s no connection whatsoever between cholesterol in food and cholesterol in blood. And we’ve known that all along. Cholesterol in the diet doesn’t matter at all unless you happen to be a chicken or a rabbit.” Indeed, no research seems to show any correlation between cholesterol consumption and cholesterol levels in the blood, but there are many that show the lack of correlation. (Note: the idea that high levels of cholesterol in the blood leads to cardiovascular disease is also quite suspect, but due to space limitations, this is a topic for a different article).

The Cholesterol Myths, The Great Cholesterol Con, Know Your Fats: the “alternative health” books and articles all shout from the sidelines that the emperor is wearing no clothes, but the media continues to patently ignore all the scientific evidence in favor of continuing to present the same old myth. The saturated fat/cholesterol myth simply sells too much to be dropped: fat-free cookbooks, television shows, low fat this and that product, cholesterol-free such and such. It is no longer even possible, without great effort, to get full-fat yogurt in North America. The entire edible oil industry, including every new butter-like concoction that comes out of the lab, only exists because people believe the idea that saturated fat and cholesterol are harmful. “The academicians and members of the profession in general are so invested in the “fat” story that it would be professional and academic suicide to accept the truth… No one really wants to confront the reality of a 50 year old bit of nonsense that began with what was long ago shown to be fraudulent data.says Dr. Leib Krut.

But getting back to your question; you may still be feeling you could go either way on the butter-margarine question. Sure, butter’s nutrition has been vindicated, but margarine and other fake butter spreads are cheaper.

Recently margarine companies, having heard loud and clear the public backlash against hydrogenated oils and resulting trans fats, have come up with new ways to keep their polyunsaturated spreads… well, spreadable. Ironically, some of these new butter imitations are mixing palm oil in with their polyunsaturated fats to give it a thicker consistency. Palm oil is a saturated fat; and while not unhealthy, is the very fat these companies demonized in order to sell their products in the first place.

Other products are using a new process, different from hydrogenation. Interesterification (it’s a mouthful, I know) involves a manipulation of the fats at the molecular level. Studies examining the health effects of consuming these fats’ are few. Much more research needs to be done in order to determine if these manipulated fats have any long term health effects. And as Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD., point out “these may not contain hydrogenated fats but they are composed of highly processed rancid vegetable oils, soy protein isolate and a host of additives.” A processed fat, after all, is a processed fat.

To me the choice is very clear – butter wins out over margarine hands down. Butter contains vitamin A, vitamin D, lecithin, vitamin E, selenium, iodine and short and medium chain fatty acids, all essential for health. Butterfat also contains glycospingolipids, fatty acids of a special character that protect against gastro-intestinal infection. Raw butter contains a unique compound known as Wulzen factor which protects against calcification of the joints, hardening of the arteries, cataracts and calcification of the pineal gland. Put this up against a processed, fabricated tub spread that at best is benign and at worst has yet undiscovered health consequences (their track record is pretty poor on this). As I said, to me the choice is very clear.

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto.

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