Margarine has become known as something it was never meant to be: a healthy alterative to butter. Margarine companies have worked to market their product as a health food, but for a long time, it was very much the opposite.

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Margarine

A quick look at margarine’s origin story proves health was never initially part of the plan. Margarine was developed in the early 1800s—not as a healthier alternative to butter, but simply as a cheaper one. In fact, margarine really took off during the Great Depression and World War II. When American citizens were struggling with their checkbooks, margarine came to their aid. But today, when we find ourselves struggling with our blood pressure and cholesterol and weight, margarine does more harm than good.

What is Margarine Made Of?

Margarine was originally made from animal fat, but eventually chemists learned how to replace the animal fat with other substances and create a hardened stick form that would resemble a stick of butter. That move away from a soft, “tub” version to a stick of margarine made margarine appear more similar to butter, though significantly more processed. Margarine is a collection of ingredients you would never find in your own kitchen, all meant to behave like butter and taste like butter and look like butter. Even the color is manipulated, so that margarine is just as yellow as butter!

We have to ask: if it acts like butter and tastes like butter and looks like butter, shouldn’t we just buy a stick of butter? In short, it depends.

When margarine is marketed as a healthy alternative to butter, the number-one claim shared has been that margarine has less saturated fat—with previous thinking that all saturated fats are bad for everyone. But, as any nutritionist can tell you, these terms have become far more complex than they may sound.

First, we have to acknowledge that there is more than one kind of fat. Here’s a quick look at some of the common options available to consumers:

  • Saturated fats (found in whole-fat dairy products, meats, baked goods)
  • Monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil, canola/rapeseed oil, avocado oil, some nut oils)
  • Polyunsaturated fats (found in fish, seeds and nuts and their oils, and other vegetable oils)
  • Natural trans fats (found in dairy and in meat from ruminants e.g. cows)
  • Artificial trans fats (found in fried foods, baked goods)

There quite a bit of diversity in those different fats not only in terms of their sources, but also in how they affect your body. You may even be aware of this already—just think back to all the times you were warned away from fries, and all the times you felt good about adding more salmon or olive oil to your diet. Even if you aren’t familiar with the names for all of these fats, you probably know that some of them are actually quite good for you.

That’s where the margarine confusion comes in. It’s easy to claim that they have less fat, but shouldn’t we take a look at what kind of fat we’re talking about here? Butter, being a whole-fat dairy product, has saturated fats. And saturated fats have been seen as “bad fats” for years, with many believing they have a universally negative effect on the heart. Let’s look into that.

According to a review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, dietary fat is just one factor behind the risk of heart disease. Researchers looked at 72 published studies on the effect of fats and heart disease, involving more than 600,000 people from 18 countries. With all fats analyzed, artificially-formed trans fats were linked with a higher risk of heart disease. In contrast, researchers found something unexpected: saturated fats—that is, what you get in butter—were found to have much less of an effect on heart disease risk than expected.

Why the inconsistencies? First, saturated fat is made up of individual saturated fatty acids, each of which has its own actions and impact on health, especially in the context of other fats in the food. The composition of butter is dependent on the milk from which it is made, which is, in turn, dependent upon the cow’s diet. Second, people have varying genetic predispositions to how their bodies deal with saturated fat, and some people even need to limit their intake of all fats to optimize their health and maintain a healthy weight.

What does all that mean for the margarine market? Well, the best argument that margarine has on its side was that butter has saturated fats, and saturated fats have been linked to heart disease in some people, and you should eat margarine in order to avoid butter. But with research pointing out that the problem with saturated fats isn’t actually universal—not among people nor the individual types of saturated fats themselves—so the argument shifts. Instead, we’re left wondering if we should go back to butter, which has been a part of our ancestors’ diets for generations, or if we can’t, if butter-like alternatives can be made better.

Why You Should Avoid Regular Margarine

Setting aside that butter can be fine in moderation for many people, what’s wrong with regular margarine?

First, the vegetable oils used to make regular margarines today have a high concentration of polyunsaturated fats, which are unstable when exposed to light or stored for a long period of time, generating the free radicals implicated in health risks. Just the extraction process of many inexpensive oils from their seed sources can create free radicals, which latch onto other molecules before creating more free radicals. Over the long-term, free radicals are responsible for the effects of cell damage, aging, heart disease, and cancer.

Second, the process of hardening those oils to create the more solid structure of margarine, known as hydrogenation, generates artificial trans fats. Trans fats, which we already know of as the “bad” kind of fat, can decrease immune response and fertility while increasing the risk of heart disease. On top of all of that, trans fats increase blood insulin levels (putting you at a greater risk of diabetes) and increase levels of LDL—that is, “bad cholesterol.” Even if you take care to purchase margarine with the label “trans fat-free,” margarine companies are still allowed to include them in the product under a certain amount.

Taking in trans fats makes your health improvement and weight management efforts all the more difficult. Your body will burn saturated fats and unsaturated fats, but trans fats are stored in the body as fatty tissue.

Third, regular margarine is often made of hydrogenated oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids. We do need some omega-6s, but the modern western diet already includes too much. When they aren’t balanced by omega-3s—which are increasingly scarce in our most common food sources—they can lead to inflammation and belly fat, and even heart disease and cancer.

Alternatives to Regular Margarine

Despite all that we know about the risks of depending on margarine, there may be other reasons why you absolutely cannot use butter. Whether you’re vegan, lactose-intolerant, trying to keep dairy out of your meat dishes in a kosher home, or one of the people who is sensitive to certain saturated fats, you can still find a way to avoid butter AND the concerns associated with regular margarine.

  • You could try one of the newer generations of “smart” buttery spreads, including organic blends of food fats such as omega-3-rich flaxseed and omega-9-rich olive oils, which get their hard structure from naturally-firm coconut oil. While the latter is high in saturated fat, the fatty acids present have been associated with a favorable health profile compared to some animal fats, and of course to hydrogenated fats.
  • More common transfat-free vegetarian spreads are increasingly available. Keep in mind that most governmental authorities, such as the US Food and Drug Administration, allow some trans fats (less than 0.5 grams) to be rounded down to zero—so this still isn’t your best option—, though there has been a commitment to eliminate all artificial transfats from foods. If you choose tub and “whipped” soft margarines, the amount will be the lowest possible in these types of products.
  • Other alternatives to butter and margarine include olive oil, nut oils such as hazelnut and macadamia nut, and coconut oil, and even flaxseed or chia seed gel. If you’re baking, applesauce, avocado, pureed chickpeas, and banana work well, too.

At the end of the day, though, the same rule holds true: whenever you can, always choose a natural product. Most vegetarian spreads are still processed foods, and need to be checked for additives. Butter goes through a far simpler journey from farm to table, and if selected from a well-run farm—pastured, grass-fed cows, eschewing hormones and prophylactic antibiotics—and enjoyed in moderation, it remains a good choice.

There and Back Again

Butter, especially pastured or grass-fed butter, is rich in vitamin K2, which is rare in the food supply and carries excellent health benefits, and contains an advantageous blend of fatty acids (including conjugated linoleic acid), which can support a healthy metabolism, body weight management, and prevention of risks for heart disease and cancer.

And what if you’re afraid of the “high-fat” part of “high-fat” dairy? A 2013 study in the European Journal of Nutrition found that high-fat dairy did not increase the risk of metabolic disease. In fact, participants who consumed high-fat dairy experienced a significantly reduced risk of obesity. With such studies being matched by those suggesting risk, we are reminded that not all foods suit everyone. However, there is ample evidence that butter can be used safely and advantageously, and it is unquestionably the preferred choice above overly processed regular margarines that contain trans fat.

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Margarine is just one of FIVE foods you should never eat. Click here to learn about the others!

Sources

  1. Campbell A. Which Butter (or Spread) is Better? Diabetes Self Management. July 28, 2014. Retrieved March 12, 2016.
  2. Cheng V. What is Margarine and Why is it Bad for You? Therealfoodguide.com. Retrieved 2016 Jan 3.
  3. Chowdhury R, Warnakula S, Kunutsor S, et al. Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2014;160(6):398-406.
  4. Consumer Reports. The best healthy butter substitutes. January, 2014. Retrieved March 12, 2016.
  5. Doheny K. Saturated Fats Not So Bad? Not So Fast, Critics of New Analysis Say. In: Heart Disease Health Center. Webmd.com. 2014 Mar 20. Retrieved 2016 Jan 3.
  6. Guyenet S. Butter vs. Margarine. Wholehealthsource.blogspot.com. 2009 Oct 21. Retrieved 2016 Jan 3.
  7. Huth PJ, Park KM. Influence of Dairy Product and Milk Fat Consumption on Cardiovascular Disease Risk: A Review of the Evidence. Advances in Nutrition. 2012;3:266-285.
  8. Kratz M, Baars T, Guyenet S. The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease. European Journal of Nutrition. 2013; 52(1):1-24.
  9. Kupferschmidt K. Scientists Fix Errors in Controversial Paper About Saturated Fats. Science. March 24, 2014. Retrieved March 12, 2016.

Comments 22

    • Profile photo of ossie-sharon

      Hi, Margaret. That product is a bit more processed than we would generally recommend. If you only use a small amount each day, that’s fine. If you use more than about a teaspoon (5 g), I suggest to whip up your own spread with coconut oil or butter + olive oil + natural butter flavoring (sold in small bottles in the “extract” section).

    • Profile photo of ossie-sharon

      The video discussed artificial or overprocessed versions of popular foods that should be healthy, but have been manipulated into being particularly harmful to your goals. Rather than giving up on them altogether, we encourage better versions in their original, natural forms. Note that the foods discussed in the video are only examples, and many other popular foods have been similarly affected—so it’s good to read labels, be aware of how a food is made, and choose whole foods as much as possible.
      1. Regular “whole wheat” bread—this often also contains refined flours, so it is preferred to select “100% whole” grain products (wheat or other). Even with these products, be sure to read the label and avoid hydrogenated fats or similar ingredients such as mono- and diglycerides.
      2. Regular margarine—this is often made from chemically altered fats that create health risks similar to those people are trying to avoid by eating a plant-based product. If you must use a hardened oil, t is better to choose those based on coconut oil, and otherwise to use healthy liquid oils, such as olive, as much as possible.
      3. Artificial sweeteners—you can read more about this here: http://www.trimdownclub.com/the-best-way-to-sweeten-your-tea-2.
      4. Regular orange juice—If it is in a store, it is likely to have been stripped of what makes it healthy. Even if vitamins etc. have been added back in, it really is not the same. Fresh-squeezed is the way to go.
      5. Conventional and overly processed soy—organic is fine, and minimally processed items such as tofu, yogurt, and milk, as well as fermented items such as tempeh and natto are fine. However, most pre-packaged mock meats tend to be a problem.

    • Profile photo of ossie-sharon

      Hi, Rose. This program and your menus are already designed based on principles of diabetic nutrition. If you would like to improve upon them, I suggest you try the personal version of the Menu Planner application (the right-most option here – http://www.trimdownclub.com/menu-planner), so that you can select your foods according to the color-coding (lighter blues = healthier) and get your menu score above 90.

    • Profile photo of ossie-sharon

      Hi, Mary. Almond milk is generally fine, best if it is unsweetened and without carageenan. As for soya butter margarine, the best types don’t have hydrogenated fats and contain either omega-3 or olive oil.

    • Profile photo of ossie-sharon

      Hi, Yvonne. First, it’s all about portion size – have it as often as you like, as long as the total is consistent with your nutritional needs. Your menu pattern here can provide guidance. Second, if you’re not already using whole grain pasta, try to make the switch over, even gradually if you don’t like it right away. – try mixing a little in with your regular pasta, and increase the amount little by little.

    • Profile photo of ossie-sharon

      Hi, littlebit. I’m not sure which you missed, so I’m posting the four other than regular margarine below. The video discussed artificial or overprocessed versions of popular foods that should be healthy, but have been manipulated into being particularly harmful to your goals. Rather than giving up on them altogether, we encourage better versions in their original, natural forms. Note that the foods discussed in the video are only examples, and many other popular foods have been similarly affected—so it’s good to read labels, be aware of how a food is made, and choose whole foods as much as possible.
      1. Regular “whole wheat” bread – this often also contains refined flours, so it is preferred to select “100% whole” grain products (wheat or other). Even with these products, be sure to read the label and avoid hydrogenated fats or similar ingredients such as mono- and diglycerides.
      2. Artificial sweeteners – you can read more about this here: http://www.trimdownclub.com/the-best-way-to-sweeten-your-tea-2.
      3. Regular orange juice – If it is in a store, it is likely to have been stripped of what makes it healthy. Even if vitamins etc. have been added back in, it really is not the same. Fresh-squeezed is the way to go.
      4. Conventional and overly processed soy – organic is fine, and minimally processed items such as tofu, yogurt, and milk, as well as fermented items such as tempeh and natto are fine. However, most pre-packaged mock meats tend to be a problem.

  1. Profile photo of aileentaylor

    it is frustrating that I cannot listen to the ‘five foods I should never eat’ without it timing out. I do not have time to listen to it in one session. I have only managed to get to no3 . When I paused it and came back to resume it had timed out. I really do not want to have to listen to the first part each time. Pleas can you help

    • Profile photo of ossie-sharon

      Hi, Ms. Taylor. The video discussed artificial or overprocessed versions of popular foods that should be healthy, but have been manipulated into being particularly harmful to your goals. Rather than giving up on them altogether, we encourage better versions in their original, natural forms. Note that the foods discussed in the video are only examples, and many other popular foods have been similarly affected—so it’s good to read labels, be aware of how a food is made, and choose whole foods as much as possible.
      1. Regular “whole wheat” bread – this often also contains refined flours, so it is preferred to select “100% whole” grain products (wheat or other). Even with these products, be sure to read the label and avoid hydrogenated fats or similar ingredients such as mono- and diglycerides.
      2. Regular margarine – this is often made from chemically altered fats that create health risks similar to those people are trying to avoid by eating a plant-based product. If you must use a hardened oil, t is better to choose those based on coconut oil, and otherwise to use healthy liquid oils, such as olive, as much as possible.
      3. Artificial sweeteners – you can read more about this here: http://www.trimdownclub.com/the-best-way-to-sweeten-your-tea-2.
      4. Regular orange juice – If it is in a store, it is likely to have been stripped of what makes it healthy. Even if vitamins etc. have been added back in, it really is not the same. Fresh-squeezed is the way to go.
      5. Conventional and overly processed soy – organic is fine, and minimally processed items such as tofu, yogurt, and milk, as well as fermented items such as tempeh and natto are fine. However, most pre-packaged mock meats tend to be a problem.

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