The great margarine versus butter debate should have ended long ago.
Since the early 1990s, scientific evidence has been pouring in about the many dangers of trans fats found in margarine – as well in other artificially created fats like vegetable shortening and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
Trans fats are now known to cause heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and other degenerative diseases. In addition, trans fats have been linked with lower birth weight of babies as well as declined fertility.
Given the evidence, one would expect that there is now universal agreement that margarine is by far the more harmful product.
This is assuming that the saturated fat found in butter is harmful in the first place. If, like a number of more enlightened scientists, you adopt the view that saturated fat is actually healthy, then there is absolutely no contest.
Butter is better! There is no need for a margarine versus butter debate.
Amazingly, however, the butter vs margarine debate rages on.
Even though trans fats are now known to be much more harmful than saturated fats, a number of scientists, doctors and health authorities – including the Singapore Health Promotion Board and the Chairman of the Singapore Heart Foundation – still hold the view that margarine is healthier than butter.
Soft margarine better?
What these so-called health experts have simply done is shift their position slightly while remaining on the same side of the fence in this butter vs margarine debate.
So instead of supporting all types of margarine, they now support only soft margarine that contain lower levels of trans fats.
Soft margarine was the response of the vegetable oils industry during the 1990s, when scientific evidence about the dangers of trans fats started to mount. By producing soft margarine with less trans fat, the industry hoped to detract attention from the fact that margarine is inherently harmful.
This is no different from cigarette companies producing low tar / low nicotine cigarettes in order to make smoking seem healthier. Of course, cigarette companies failed to pull off such a tactic because smoking is so evidently harmful.
The margarine makers, however, passed with flying colors. Scientists, doctors, nutritionists, health authorities, the media and the public were all sold on soft margarine. Soft margarine became the new winner in this butter vs margarine debate.
Why margarine won the butter v margarine debate?
There are a few reasons why, despite the damning evidence, margarine still won the butter vs margarine debate.
Saturated fats ‘harmful’
One is the deeply entrenched belief that saturated fats are harmful because a lot of scientific studies seem to prove this.
This, however, is a badly mistaken idea because none of those scientific studies took trans fats into account. Whenever researchers accounted for trans fats, they found that saturated fats do not cause any serious health problems and that trans fats are the real culprits.
In other words, saturated fats had all along been wrongly accused of problems that were being caused by trans fats.
Unfortunately, the idea that saturated fats are harmful remains firmly stuck in many people’s minds. So they continue to side margarine in the butter vs margarine debate, simply on the basis that margarine is polyunsaturated.
Inherent harm of margarine is not obvious
Another reason why margarine won the butter vs margarine debate is that the inherent harm of margarine – unlike the harm of cigarette smoking – is not obvious.
Many people – including the scientists and health authorities who side margarine in the butter v margarine debate – are not aware of how margarine is made.
They might vaguely know that it is made by a process called hydrogenation, whereby hydrogen molecules are forced into oil molecules through the use of high heat, high pressure and toxic catalysts such as nickel.
Less widely known, however, are the details of this process:
- Typically, margarine is made from cheap, poor quality oils that have already turned rancid – because the oils had been extracted from oil seeds using high temperature, and high temperature damages oil, causing rancidity.
- Some of the oils used in making margarine, such as cottonseed oil, are not suitable for human consumption in the first place because they contain naturally toxic substances.
- At the end of the hydrogenation process, the resulting MARGARINE IS GREY AND SMELLY! It needs to be bleached and deodorized, artificially flavored and dyed yellow (with a natural dye, as synthetic coloring is not allowed) before humans would eat it. Yet rats and cockroaches still would not touch margarine. Only humans do.
Only humans can be foolish enough to declare such a product as healthy – just because it happens to be polyunsaturated.
I like to believe that those who continue to vote for margarine in the butter v margarine contest are unaware of the details of how margarine is made. If they are aware and they still support margarine in this butter vs margarine debate, then I have no more faith in the human race.
Butter vs margarine – all points considered
Sadly, another reason why some scientists and health authorities support margarine in the butter v margarine debate is that they only consider a very narrow perspective.
They look at whether the product is saturated or polyunsaturated. And now, they look also at the content of trans fat. But that is it.
They look no further. In considering butter vs margarine, they totally ignore factors mentioned above, such as the quality of raw materials and the basic nature of the product – which is grey and smelly!
Udo Erasmus on butter v margarine
One of the few people who looked at the butter v margarine issue from a broad perspective is Udo Erasmus, who is today internationally famous as an authority on fats and oils. Udo Erasmus is best known for his book, Fats that heal, Fats that kill.
I had bought his earlier, lesser-known book, Fats and Oils. In that book, Udo Erasmus did a very basic comparison of butter vs margarine, using a simple scoring system. He examined all the various positive and negative factors of butter v margarine, and award 1 point for each positive factor, -1 point for each negative factor.
This is a very simple, easy to understand way of comparing butter vs margarine. It is also simplistic, as it does not consider that some factors are more important than others. Nonetheless, it is a thorough and useful discussion.
Udo Erasmus wrote that book in the late 1980s, before much of the current scientific evidence about the dangers of trans fats were known. Yet even then, it showed clearly that butter is, by far, the healthier product.
The original points made by Udo Erasmus in his butter v margarine discussion are presented in the table below with my comments and additions in bold red text.
|QUALITIES OF BUTTER||Score|
|Easy to digest as it contains mainly short chain fatty acids||+ 1|
|Contains very little essential fatty acids that are good for health, only 2 percent linoleic acid (Omega 6) and practically no linolenic acid (Omega 3)||– 1|
|Contains relatively large amounts of streaic acid (9 percent), oleic acid (19 percent) and palmitic acid (38 percent) which interfere with the functions of essential fatty acids According to more recent reseach by Mary Enig, saturated fats help the body to utilise Omega 3||– 1|
|Contains cholesterol||– 1|
|Concentrates pesticides 2 to 5 times more than vegetable oils||– 1|
|Contains antibiotics used to feed cattle||– 1|
|Contains 3 to 6 percent trans fatty acids, but the type of trans fatty acids found in butter are less harmful than those in margarine More recent research suggests that the natural trans fats in butter are actually beneficial for health, and have anti-cancer properties||– 1/2|
|Suitable for fying, baking and heating and remains stable when exposed to heat, light and oxygen||+ 1|
|Overall score for butter Overall score for organic butter that contain no pesticides or antibiotics Overall score for butter with the latest scientific knowledge Overall score for organic butter with the latest scientific knowledge||– 3 1/2 – 1 1/2 0 + 2|
Udo Erasmus concluded at that time that butter was more or less neutral, not good, not bad. With more recent scientific knowledge, however, it is clear that butter – especially organic butter from grass fed cows – is a beneficial product.
Moreover, some scientists argue that cholesterol, far from being harmful, is actually healthy. If one accepts this argument, then the score for butter rises by another point. The score for margarine (below) would accordingly drop a point if one views cholesterol to be beneficial.
|QUALITIES OF MARGARINE||Score|
|Hard to digest as it contains little short chain fatty acids||– 1|
|Has a high content of non-essential fatty acids which interfere with the functions of essential fatty acids||– 1|
|Contains no cholesterol||+ 1|
|Concentrates pesticides 2 to 5 times more than vegetable oils||– 1|
|The minerals and vitamins needed for fat metabolism have been refined out of margarine||– 1|
|Contains less pesticide than butter||+ 1/2|
|Contains no antibiotics, no point for or against||0|
|Contains dozens of other non-natural chemicals produced during hydrogenation, the effects of which are not totally known||– 1 at least|
|Not good for frying because the polyunsaturated fats still present are further damaged by heat, light and oxygen||– 1|
|Advertised in misleading ways as high in polyunsaturated fats when some of these polyunsaturated fats are actually harmful||– 1|
|The water present in margarine, about 20 percent, slowly destroys the double bonds in fatty acid chains. This produces altered fats which may again be harmful||– 1|
|Overall score for margarine||– 7 1/2|
We see clearly from the above butter vs margarine discussion that there is actually no contest.
Margarine has lots and lots of negative factors and, at best, one or two advantages over butter – no cholesterol, no pesticides and (Udo Erasmus) did not mention this, lower levels of saturated fat.
If one accepts the view that saturated fat and cholesterol are actually beneficial (click here to learn more about the benefits of saturated fats) then margarine offers practically zero advantage over butter.
It is the knock-out loser in the margarine versus butter / butter v margarine fight.
But when leading health experts and health authorities are not able to see this, and they keep advising consumers to consume soft margarine, then the real losers are the ill-informed consumers.
Some lose their lives!