By: Kimberly Roberto
For the past few decades, the public has been warned to avoid butter and instead use margarine. Most arguments center around saturated fat, cholesterol and their negative effects on the heart. Butter however, has been around for hundreds of years, long before the rise in heart disease. Have we given butter a bad rap?
Many cultures have and currently sustain amazingly high levels of their health, even while consuming moderate to high fat diets. Those diets even include significant amounts of saturated fats! Members of the Masai tribe in Africa can eat as much as one pound of saturated fats daily with their diets being made up solely of full-fat milk, cream, and red meat. Another example is the French society. The French eat about four times as much butter than Americans, and have a higher intake of saturated fats. But according to a study from 1999 by the British Heart Foundation, the death rate from coronary heart disease among male ages 35-74 was nearly 30% less in France than in the United States. (1)
However, when it comes to the debate of butter vs. margarine, it is important to understand the history, production and health effects of each.
Butter is a natural discovery with a history line dating back to 3500 B.C. in Asia. At the time, butter would have been made from sheep or goat milk as cows were not domesticated until much later. Basically the process is easy. Allow the milk to sit until the cream rises to the top. Then skim the cream off the top, pour into a churn, and “work” it into butter. Although this process is now highly automated, it is still whole food based. In reality you could, with readily available ingredients, make butter in your own kitchen. In fact, ask your child what they did in science today. Many elementary schools use the making of butter as a science lesson. Just combine milk and salt and work it into butter.
Margarine on the other hand is a man-made product manufactured to replace butter. It was originally developed as a cheaper alternative, especially as the population began to shift and the urban boom came into play. With more cities growing, cost became a consideration. Margarine can also be made from several different oils and liquids, which makes food manufacturers very happy. Margarine manufacturers use the cheapest oils, like sunflower, corn, cottonseed or soybean oil. Then it is mixed with a liquid addition. This could be milk, water, and/or soy-based protein, and salt.
Taking the ingredients from their raw form to the finished product is an extensive process. The ingredients must first undergo a prepping process that involves filtering, washing and even bleaching. The oils are then treated with hydrogen gas in a high pressure, high temperature reactor. Side Note: Heat can be very dangerous to unstable oils like the ones being used. Heat and light can cause the oils to become rancid.
Not too appetizing so far but there is more. Emulsifiers are then added to achieve the desired texture. This is followed by one final “cleaning”, usually involving bleach, to remove any undesirable colors or odors. Last but not least, flavorings and colorings are added to this concoction to make it resemble the buttery look-alikes we see on the grocery shelf. You can even choose margarine in convenient tubs, sticks or liquid sprays.
NO HOME COOK COULD ACHIEVE THIS IN THEIR KITCHEN. Unlike butter, margarine requires access to obscure ingredients and specialized equipment.
Side Note: At one point in time the dairy industry fought back against margarine and were successful in restricting margarine coloring. Margarine manufacturers got around the restrictions by adding a “color packet” that consumers mix at home to gain the butter color.
While preaching the benefits of margarine, we as a society began to overlook some very important things. In an effort to “improve” upon Mother Nature’s original ideas, we have taken a very dangerous turn in our health.
The low fat craze actually began gaining a hold in our society as early as the late 1960’s. It grew through the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s to the outlandish fad that rules not only our dietary consumption, but how much we are supposed to look and feel about ourselves. Butter and meat consumption dropped by half in the 1960’s and 1970’s while the consumption of margarine grew by four times. And guess what happened? Heart disease in our society begin to rise dramatically. In fact, before 1930, heart attacks were virtually non-existent. By 1930, there were 3,000 deaths per year attributed to heart attacks. By the 1960’s it had grown to upwards of 500,000 per year. Today one out of every two Americans will suffer a heart attack. Those are some scary statistics! A wise doctor named Dr. Dudley
White, prominent cardiologist and physician to President Eisenhower was quoted as saying “See here, I began my practice as a cardiologist in 1920 and I never saw a heart attack patient until 1928. Back in heart attack free days before 1920, the fats were butter and lard, and I think we could all benefit from the kind of diet that we had at a time when no one had ever heard the word “corn oil.”(2) What a wise man and a voice of reason!
Here are the health facts. Butter, despite its bad rap, remains a healthy, nutritious food that many people are missing out on. Here’s why:
Butter contains Arachidonic Acid - which is a vital component of cell membranes and contributes to proper brain function. (Makes you even smarter!)
Butter is made up of 12-15% short and medium chain fatty acids. These are absorbed directly from the small intestine (without the need for bile salts). These type of fats have huge immune boosting properties. These fats are also anti-tumor and anti-viral.
Butter in CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) has proven properties that attribute to cancer prevention. They are also very important for muscle mass and fat burning. Imagine that! A good fat that burns bad fat!
Butter contains Omega 6’s and Omega 3’s, almost equally preventing improper ratios. Butter is a good source of Vitamin A. It also contains trace minerals like manganese, chromium, iodine, zinc and selenium, another powerful anti-oxidant.
NOTE: Butter from organic, grass fed cows has much higher levels of Omega 3’s and CLA than butter made from conventional grain fed cows.
Now the benefits (or lack thereof) in margarine’s corner.
Margarine is lower in total fat and saturated fat. While this is true, lower fat - even lower saturated fat - does not equate to lower risk of heart disease or improved health. In fact, no randomized research study has ever been able to link a low-fat diet and lower cholesterol to a lower risk of heart disease.
According to the British Medical Journal, there is a higher death rate among people with low cholesterol than high cholesterol.
Margarine is spreadable, even when refrigerated. This is an added convenience. However, easiest does not mean it is always best!
Margarine really doesn’t have anything nutritionally to offer. Although it contains high levels of Omega 6, it has minimal Omega 3’s, NO CLA and no Arachidonic Acid.
All margarine products contain TRANS FATS or unnaturally extracted fats. Your body does not recognize the difference between trans or regular fats, and incorporates either into the cell membrane. In this case, your cells even become hydrogenated. This does not allow the good things (nutrients, water, oxygen) to get in and does not flush out the bad (waste products, toxins, etc).
Excessive processing results in unwanted and unnecessary additions to the product like emulsifiers, stabilizers, colorings and flavorings.
DESPITE margarine’s lack of nutritional appeal, the American Heart Association still sings the praise of margarine. Clearly stated on their website, “the best choice for your health is a liquid margarine, or a soft tub margarine”.(3) Really?
As a good rule of thumb, and as the premise for the Maximized Living Nutrition Plans, it is best to choose whole, natural, minimally processed (if at all) foods. Man-Made and ultra-processed foods should be avoided. In the debate between butter and margarine, , butter is the clear choice. Look for organic butter, preferably from a grass-fed cow.
Mankind has made many vast and important improvements to our ever changing society. Meddling with our foods is not one of those improvements. A back to basics approach seems to be in order.
Find out how butter and margarine are made here.