I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better (than butter)

by Sylvia de Luca

As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists.

This view, expressed by food policy expert Joan Dye Gussow epitomizes the changing perceptions on butter and margarine.

Before researching this topic, I was one of the thousands of consumers who would automatically choose Flora margarine over butter at the supermarket. Popular opinion cons us into believing that margarine is a healthier alternative to butter and we can hardly be blamed for this.

The masterminds behind the brand design of Flora’s packaging do an excellent job in rendering the margarine tub attractive and persuasive to consumers. A drawing of a heart encompasses the product name, leading us to think that Flora margarine will guarantee us fewer heart problems. Phrases on the tub such as ‘extra light’, ‘high in Omega 3’ and ‘80% less saturated fat than butter’ grab our attention, inciting us to purchase the product that is seemingly advantageous to our health.

However extensive research has led some scientists to suggest that a multitude of unhealthy components lie within that enticing margarine tub. Firstly, the process of hydrogenation used to create margarine forms trans fats. Chemists deem them as unsafe at any level as they contribute to bone problems, hormonal imbalance, skin disease, infertility, difficulties in pregnancy, low birth weight and growth problems.

Similarly free radicals and other toxic breakdown products are released during the high temperature industrial process, and they have been known to contribute to cancer and heart disease. Another shocking fact about margarine production is that the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is grey, and thus has to be bleached to make it white, before margarine is given its colour through yellow colouring.

According to the Harvard Medical School study, eating margarine can actually increase heart disease in women by 53% over eating the same amount of butter. With this in mind, the cleverly designed Flora tub with a heart image suddenly seems misleading.

All of the above illustrate that margarine is a highly processed food. This helps us to understand Joan Dye Gussow’s preference of butter as it is a more natural product that has been less tainted by chemists.

Therefore why is butter so frequently regarded as an unhealthy choice?  It dates back to research undertaken in the 1940s that showed that increased fat intake caused cancer. People became wary of butter given that it has a higher saturated fat content than margarine. Yet the press failed to underline that the ‘saturated fats’ used in the experiments were not ‘naturally saturated fats’ but rather partially hydrogenated or hardened fats. Ironically these are predominately found in margarine, and not in butter.

It may come as a surprise to learn that many of the saturated fats in butter actually have strong anti-cancer properties. Butter is rich in short and medium chain fatty acid chains that have powerful anti-tumour effects. Another misconception is the notion that butter causes weight gain. The short and medium chain fatty acids in butter are not stored in the adipose tissue, but are used for quick energy.

Butter offers a feeling of satisfaction when consumed, but this is merely because it is rich in nutrients. Other advantages include the fact that Vitamin A, found in butter, is essential to a healthy immune system, and for optimal growth in children. Vitamin A and E also act as anti-oxidants that protect against free radical damage that weakens the arteries. Furthermore butterfat contains a special category of fatty acids that protect against gastro-intestinal infection.

Arguably the climax of the butter v margarine debate came in 1997 when Professor Walter Willett called hydrogenation “the biggest food processing disaster in US history”. Then in 2004 he told an interviewer that the advice to switch from butter to vegetable oils hydrogenated into margarine had turned out to be “a disastrous mistake”. This revelation put multinational consumer products giant, Unilever, in an uncomfortable position. It had invested enormous amounts of time and money into promoting margarine as a healthier alternative to butter, only to find that this theory was later proved to be wrong.

You may wish to bear all this information in mind next time you find yourself in the Tesco aisle face to face with tubs of butter and margarine. If you happen to prefer the taste of butter to margarine it should come as a pleasant surprise to learn that it is not as harmful as we once perceived. Spread the good news – and get spreading the butter!

Photograph: Taryn on Flickr

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