There's a battle going on in Wikipedia (isn't there always?) This one is on the margarine versus butter debate, and the Wikipedia editors have flagged the ever-changing article 'margarine' as possibly biased. It's a vital topic, because the answer hinges on one of the most important health misunderstandings of the last three decades.
A typical Wikipedia battle of opinions. Looking at its history, it seems to be going the usual way of such debates: one side 'corrects' the other's changes, it's recorrected back, and so on until the editors put up a bar and open a debate to settle it. (Maybe I should have a go? Nah, wait till the dust dies down.)
[Do note that with the term 'margarine', I'm including low-fat spreads. The general definition today is that margarine is 70% -80% fat (like butter) and low-fat spreads are less. Otherwise they're similar. It's just that you can eat a little more low-fat spread to get the same damage to your health.]
Before I explain why there's Bad Health in the Margarine-Butter wars, I'll sketch in a bit of the history. Skip this if you're bored by history, but don't blame me if you're missing a point later.
History of Margarine
All the sources say that margarine began as a competition run by Emperor Napoleon III of France in the mid-19th century to find a cheap butter substitute for the French army and the poor. The winner's product, oleomargarine, was an emulsion of beef fat with skim milk, and while it was clearly not butter, it was edible – and cheap.
For six decades, this and similar spreads became a commercial success all over Europe and North America, though their sales never rivalled butter. In the UK it was first called 'butterine', but after it was found being sold as an adulterant in butter, a public enquiry resulted in the name 'margarine' being required.
Recipes varied, but they were all essentially flavored water or milk emulsions of a hard fat, intended to resemble butter enough to get a sale. Mostly animal fats were used: soft beef fat usually, blended with anything cheap: mutton fat and whale blubber, for example. High-saturate tropical fats like coconut oil or palm oil were occasionally used, too. Margarine was universally disliked, but universally bought as the poor man's butter.
In the 1930s, a radical change came with the development of hydrogenation. This is when fat or oil is heated with hydrogen, to convert lighter oils into saturated fats. The resulting very hard fat could be blended with lighter oils and emulsified with water, skim milk or whey to a butter-like consistency – and with a much better flavor and more controllable consistency than previously.
It was found, though, that the hydrogenation process could be stopped short, and the resulting partially hydrogenated oil was butter-like with no blending of light oils needed. This saved on costs. This became the method of choice from the 1950s on. Traditional margarine today is a mix of partially hydrogenated oils (corn, cottonseed, peanut, rape and sunflower being cheap, depending on region and season), emulsified with water and with added flavorings. Whey powder and vitamins are usually added to costlier blends.
The situation today
Margarines and spreads now well outsell butter, probably because margarine today is tastier than ever and often half the price of butter, and because of the butter health scare a few decades ago (also known as the margarine myth – see below). Partial hydrogenation is still the method used to make most margarines, where it's allowed and accepted by the public – it's the cheapest method.
In the last couple of decades, more expensive, butter-like margarines and lower-fat spreads have got popular, getting their taste from extra whey and artificial flavors. They have names not unlike 'I Can Believe This Isn't Butter'. All these, together with cheaper spreads, are the margarine of our title.
And, at last, margarines and spreads are being made from unhydrogenated oils, even with traces of fish oil for Omega-3, and heavily advertised as the best thing for health since sliced … er … butter. I'll come to these last.
End of history
(bored ones – you can look back, now).
The Butter-Margarine Wars
On with the main theme of this article.
The three-decade-long fight between the butter and margarine lobbies hasn't died yet. It wouldn't, would it, with so many millions of dollars in profits hinging on the outcome? The argument seems to turn on which will kill you next week and which will help you live to be 120 – if you believe either of them!
The butter lobby would have you believe that margarine is an adulterated chemical mess that will see you off in a jiffy with a seized-up heart or stroke – but butter is natural, and good for you. And it tastes like, well, butter. Margarine fans want you to know that butter is full of killer saturated fats, whereas margarine is made with poly-unsaturated goodness and precious vitamins to preserve you for decades. And it tastes like butter, anyway.
Well, when it comes to the character assassination part, they both are. As you will have heard, eating saturated fats in quantity is said to be the surest way to get hardened, fatty arteries and pop off with a heart attack or stroke: it gets most of us in the end. If you eat a typical Western diet, this is true, and what the margarine lobby major on in their advertising.
However – and this is the Margarine Myth – they also claim that margarine is chock full of polyunsaturated oils like sunflower oil, which are very good for you. Oh-oh! Not true. Made from polyunsaturates, yes. Analyzed to contain poly-unsaturates, yes. But healthy – NO! Not always anyway, and depending where you live, maybe not often …
You see, it wasn't much known till the 1980s that there were two types of poly-unsaturated fatty acid. One was normal (the cis- type), by far the commonest in nature, the other twisted from normal (trans- type), giving it the characteristics of a saturated fat.
Now, much margarine since the 1930s (and the most common margarine from the 1950s until maybe recently) has been made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Partial hydrogenation's main aim is to convert some of the oils into fats giving the whole mess a 'harder' consistency and making it suitable for margarine. Partial hydrogenation's other effect, though, is to twist cis- into trans-fats. In other words, much of the healthy poly-unsaturated oil in these margarines is converted into trans-fats, sometimes over a quarter of the oil content, as a by-product of making some fats from the oil. But traditional fat analyses still show them as poly-unsaturates, and so trans-fats can sneak into that poly-unsaturates count on the tub.
You may have heard about the nasty trans-fat. You heard right. Like a saturated fat, it gets turned by your body straight into energy, and, as people generally eat more energy than they can use, it goes 'straight to my hips', as I hear a lot of ladies say. It gets stored – in the cellulite, the love handles, the artery walls. Yeah, just like butter fat.
But there's worse.
Trans-Fats – the Healthy Oil Blockers
Your body needs poly-unsaturated fatty acids for body building, repair and a lot of other jobs, especially the essential Omega 3 fatty acid ALA and Omega 6 fatty acid LA. It can recognize these, cut them out from the rest using clever enzymes and send them to where they're needed for your health.
Because a trans-fat is still poly-unsaturated, your internal chemical factory almost recognises it as the real thing. It tries to do the cut-out bit and fails – but in trying, it misses a lot of the real cis-fats your body needs, which simply get burnt for energy.
So, trans-fats block your reserving of a lot of the cis-fats you need to stay healthy. You then need to eat more cis-fats than you'd otherwise need, to be fit. Trouble is, the vital ALA cis-fat is pretty scarce in today's refined food, fast food, junk food diet. If you're seriously short of it, your body has to go into emergency measures to keep you alive – and the most common results are atherosclerosis and arthritis.
The Margarine Myth
Let's put all this together. There is a very strong argument (ie, it's dead certain, unless you make margarine) for claiming that 'traditional' margarine, made from partially hydrogenated oils, is worse for health than butter because of its trans-fat content. That's what explodes the myth of margarine's health benefits.
The scares about butter have a lot of truth in them – but it's even more true for the trans-fat margarine they said was safer than butter. OK, 30 years ago, no-one knew about the trans-fat dangers. 'Taint their fault. But by 20 years ago, the science was solid – and oil chemists knew it. So, why didn't they tell us, or change the margarine formulas once they knew its effects? Even if it would cost more. Might be something to do with who they worked for!
Some Hope Dawning
As the information I've laid out briefly in this article became prominent in the last few years, margarine makers have quietly developed and publicly trumpeted new margarines with new health claims (and at a higher price, of course). Some add 'wonder' ingredients to hopefully make an unhealthy product (margarine is, after all, a fat) more healthy. Some of them have quietly replaced the partially-hydrogenated oils with regular oils. If you're in the US, the pack will have to tell you the trans-fat content, so it's easy to tell.
If you're not in the US, you still need to look on your supermarket shelves to see whether the margarine revolution has got to you yet. Does the label mention trans-fats? If not, it's probably got 'em!
But now, two kinds of margarine have arrived which make new claims to be healthy. One of them's a winner, the other a dud.
The Cholesterol-Killer Margarine?
Type one contains additives known to reduce blood cholesterol levels in trials – especially plant sterol or stanol esters. They are 3 to 5 times the price of regular margarines. Sounds great if it works!
Just remember that, to get any useful benefits, you'll need to eat a quarter pound or more of this fat a day. It'll be a fine margarine if there are no trans- fats in it, but there are much healthier and cheaper ways to get the cholesterol-lowering results than eating your sterols as extracts in margarine. And the easiest is to eat plenty of vegetables and fruit, where the additional benefits go far beyond a dose of plant sterol.
(Tip: it's worth repeating how to tell whether there are trans fats in a margarine or oil. Just look on the pack. If the margarine is free of this junk, they'll usually be proud to tell you. – it's likely in there!)
The Truly Healthy Margarine?
Type two appeared quite recently and is still gaining market share. It's a low-fat spread around the price of butter, and as it gains in popularity, the price should drop. They use refined polyunsaturated oils without hydrogenation and they clearly say how much trans fat is in the tub (there's always a little, even in natural oils). Good. Such margarines definitely give advantages over butter – as long as you don't eat a lot. It is a fat, after all! This is so far the healthy way to go.
What is the best oil and fat balance?
One of the nutritional problems in today's West is the predominance of Omega-6 poly-unsaturates in our food, along with a lot of saturates, of course. It was discovered long ago, but not much publicized, that Omega-6 and Omega-3 must be eaten in a naturally balanced ratio with each other, if our body's extraction and reservation of both is to be successful. So the high level of Omega-6 is a bad, not a good thing, unless we eat at least a third of that amount of Omega-3, too. And we don't. It's processed out of our food in the factory, and in fact, most Westerners are significantly short of it. This has been flagged up in so many trials as a likely major factor in atherosclerosis and arthritis that you can take it as so.
What you need to become healthy then, is to cut right down on Omega 6, then find a good source of Omega 3 with not much else in it. There are two big sources of Omega 3: fish oils and flax seed and its oil. Fish oils have almost none of the vital ALA in them – fish don't store it. If you're healthy, you can make the fish oil fatty acids from ALA yourself, so you really need a good source of ALA. Flax is the only oil with over 30% ALA; it's usually about 55%. That's why flax was a traditional winter food.
For most people, then, I recommend at least 15ml of flax oil a day, and wild-caught, sub-arctic oily fish twice a week. Your complementary Omega 6 oils should be not over 30ml a day Omega 6 content to keep the balance, and on a typical Western diet that's impossible. So you need some diet modification to stay healthy. But you guessed that, didn't you?
Which Margarine Oils Are Healthiest?
Some recent margarines and spreads trumpet their headline oil on the pack as especially healthy. How true are the claims? Many are based on old, discredited ideas about good nutrition – even doctors can get behind on what's proven healthy! This is particularly true for sunflower oil, soya oil and olive oil. Remember, too, that this advice goes for the oils as well as spreads made from them.
So here are my suggestions for which margarines are best for you:
- Sunflower Spread. If you eat plenty of fish and flax seed, this is fine. Spreads made mainly or wholly from sunflower oil will be rich in Omega-6, and you'll get a poly-unsaturate balance. If you are deficient in Omega-3 – like most people – this is not the one for you. Your Omega-3 take up will be compromised, and you're not getting enough as it is!
- Soya Spreads. Same thing goes as for Sunflower oil. Soya products are popular among the health-aware, especially vegetarians, because soya beans are richer in protein than carbohydrate – the only bean to be a great protein source. But the oil is similar in nutrition to sunflower oil, and all I've said above applies. The soya magic doesn't work here.
- Olive Oil Spreads. For most Western people, mono-unsaturate spreads are the best to use. Olive oil is a good one, especially if it's virgin oil. But read the pack! I haven't yet seen a widely-available spread whose headline olive oil is more than a small part of the total. The spread may well be mostly poly-unsaturates – see above for the problem. There's no point paying a premium price for too little of mono-unsaturates to be useful.
- Spreads made wholly with rapeseed oil – my recommendation. Rapeseed is one of the cheapest oils, and has characteristics very similar to the famous olive oil. It's just as good for you, but not famous because it wasn't available in ancient times. In Europe, it's the cheapest and may well be the whole of the oil content. The problem is that it often won't be declared – it will appear as 'vegetable oil'. Look at the analysis table for the fat content to be mostly mono-unsaturates. That's the signal for a major rapeseed oil presence.
In the US and Canada, Canola oil is the equivalent of rapeseed. It's actually a rapeseed variant with very little erucic acid, developed when this fatty acid was thought to be harmful. We know now that rapeseed oil is good, but so is Canola (Canada-Oil – get it?). Go for it!
Margarines and Healthy Additives
Last point. They are even beginning to add a little Omega-3 fish oil and flax oil to some brands of margarine. Good idea: the more of these we get the better. Just remember, it's mostly NOT these good oils; there isn't enough in there to be really useful, so it's not worth any premium price. Good oils with Omega 3 are better bought direct and used direct.
Summary – my advice is: Don't use a spread that doesn't state on the tub that it's free or almost free of trans-fats. Don't use much of the new good stuff – it's fat, isn't it? Pick your oil blend in the spread to match your total oil and fat intake. And you can use butter if you like – but just a very little as a luxury: it's half saturated fat.