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For the past few years, eating margarine was thought to be healthy because it didn't contribute to coronary heart disease

For the past few years, eating margarine was thought to be healthy because it didn't contribute to coronary heart disease. But if this is true, why hasn't the shift away from butter and other saturated animal fats resulted in a reduction of coronary heart disease? Why is heart disease still the number-one cause of death in North America?

Hydrogenated Health Threat

Margerine is, surprisingly, a mid-nineteenth century French invention brought to North America in the 1870s. It's basically a mixture of fat with skim milk or milk protein and may include preservatives, colour, flavours and jelling agents. Early examples were sometimes made with animal fat. The use of relatively inexpensive polyunsaturated soya and seed oils became commonplace in the 1960s. Subsequent research indicating polyunsaturated fats could reduce cholesterol levels further encouraged their use.

But what many original recommendations didn't consider were the effects of a widely used commercial process on polyunsaturated oils used to make margarine and most processed foods, for that matter. Hydrogenation, a process by which hydrogen is bubbled through liquid vegetable oils to render them solid at room temperature, made the use of this relatively inexpensive ingredient practical and commonplace in the manufacturing of margarine.

Unfortunately, hydrogenation, a method of artificially saturating oils, had some unexpected side-effects: the creation of trans fatty acids. These are synthetic saturated fat molecules that increase LDL ("bad" cholesterol) and decreases HDL ("good" cholesterol). They also increase triglyceride levels and may damage cellular membranes. Although the latter point is still controversial, experts such as Dr. Udo Erasmus, author of Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill (alive Books, 1993) believe this mechanism may underlie numerous illnesses.

Why Has Nothing Been Done?

Strangely, one of the underlying reasons is regulatory. Trans fatty acid content does not have to be disclosed on labels in the US or Canada. Hydrogenated oils and trans fatty acids are included as polyunsaturated fats (the source material) so that manufacturers can maintain saturated fat-free claims for their products. Makers have resisted changes to the level of disclosure, arguing that there isn't sufficient scientific evidence to clearly indicate that hydrogenation and trans fatty acids pose a serious threat, nor that they negate the benefits of polyunsaturated fats. In reality, North American manufacturers are slowly moving away from hydrogenated margarine. The much larger issue of replacing trans fats in processed foods is a more complex matter and is probably the real reason for industries' resistance to change.

What's the Healthy Choice?

For many, butter can be used in moderation. It's easily digestible and a good source of vitamin A. It also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been shown by numerous studies to be heart-healthy and even an effective weight-loss aid.

Avoid hydrogenated margarine, particularly hard margarine because it has an even higher trans fatty acid content. For cooking, use polyunsaturated or monounsaturated oils such as safflower, grape seed or extra-virgin olive oil. It's a good idea to use unrefined oils when possible and store them in the refrigerator. Also remember that high temperatures damage all fats, so use low to moderate heat when cooking.

Non-Hydrogenated Margarines

Criticism of the use of hydrogenated oils in food products has been much more vocal in Europe than in North America. As a result, Europeans have been in the forefront of developing and marketing non-hydrogenated alternatives to conventional margarine. These products are now available in North America. They differ from conventional margarine in that the hydrogenated component is replaced by fractionated tropical and/or monosaturated oils combined with polyunsaturated oils. Whey powder, pectin and gelatin are added to improve consistency. They may also contain preservatives, colour and flavouring. Both conventional and at least one natural food processor (Spectrum Naturals) offer non-hydrogentated margarines. Based on what is currently known about the effect of dietary fats on heart disease, non-hydrogenated margarines should be significantly healthier than their conventional counterparts, but it is worth mentioning that there isn't much information available on the long-term effects of the products themselves. As with all fats, moderation is important.

Pass On the Margarine

Ingredients of one name brand non-hydrogenated margarine:

  • Liquid canola oil, 68%
  • Water, 16%
  • Modified palm and palm kernel oils, 12%
  • Salt, 1.8%
  • Whey powder, 1.4%
  • Soy bean lecithin
  • Vegetable monoglycerides
  • Potassium sorbate
  • Artifical flavour
  • Citric acid
  • Vitamin E (dl-alpha tocopherol acetate)
  • Vitamin A palmitate
  • Beta-carotene
  • Vitamin D3

PDF Table of Fat Facts

Better Butter Recipe

1lb (500 g) salted butter
1 cup (250 ml) unrefined essential-fatty-acid-rich oil such as flax or walnut

Cut butter into eight pieces. Put butter and oil into a food processor and blend until smooth. Spoon into a covered container and refrigerate. Not only will you have better butter, but it will remain soft in the refrigerator. Makes two cups (500 ml).

Source: Adapted from Healthy Immunity: Scientifically Proven Natural Treatments for Conditions from A-Z (MacMillan Canada, 2001) by Lorna Vanderhaeghe.

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