Hello, hello! Boy, are you in for a treat today. I initially intended for this to be a short little “quick bite” post on a topical issue I feel passionately about… Well, you can see for yourselves just how “quick” it ended up! S’ok, though, as I feel it’s really important to do this issue justice – there’s a lot riding on it.
I want to talk about margarine, folks. More specifically, I want to talk about why I don’t eat it, and why I don’t think our government and health bodies should be recommending we eat it either. And we can’t possibly talk about these things without talking about butter - glorious gold and tasty butter.
I’ll try not to get too scientific – after all, I’m not a biochemist, I don’t have any qualifications in nutrition, and there are many biochemists and nutritionists who can do a far better job of deconstructing the intricacies than I can. I’m an amateur, and I freely and openly confess that, but I also care deeply about what I put in my body, and try to learn as much about it as I can. So, with that in mind…
What is Margarine?
Let’s start with the Wikipedia definition (I find almost all great scientific journeys start here):
“Margarine is a semi-solid emulsion composed mainly of hydrogenated or refined vegetable fats and water. While butter is derived from milk fat, margarine is mainly derived from plant oils and fats and may contain some skimmed milk… Margarine has a minimum fat content of 80%, the same as butter…” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margarine
Got that? Spreadable vegetable fat, may or may not contain some milk, has the same fat content as butter. Easy peasy.
What is Butter?
Wikipedia to the rescue, once more:
“Butter is a dairy product made by churning fresh or fermented cream or milk… Butter consists of butterfat, milk proteins, and water.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butter
Once again, simple enough.
Which is Better?
Oh, ain’t that just the million dollar question.
If you ask The Heart Foundation, the answer’s pretty straightforward. The Heart Foundation has long held the position that fat – particularly saturated fat – is going to cause cardiovascular disease. Fat = dead.
OK, maybe that’s overstating it a bit, but this is taken from their website:
Unhealthy fats include saturated fats and trans fats. Too much saturated and trans fat contributes to the build-up of fatty material, called plaque, on the inside of your blood vessels and is a major cause of heart disease. These fats can increase LDL cholesterol in our blood that leads to the plaque. Lowering saturated fat in the diet will help to lower LDL cholesterol… Instead of cutting out all of the fat you eat, try to choose the healthier polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and limit the amount of the less healthy saturated and trans fats that you eat,” – http://www.heartfoundation.org.au
Ah, yes, the “healthy” fats…
Healthier fats include monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats – omega-3 and omega-6. These fats reduce the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in your blood and increase the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. This helps to lower your risk of getting heart disease,” – http://www.heartfoundation.org.au
In their quest to save us all from the “unhealthy saturated fat” demons, one of The Heart Foundation’s primary targets has been butter. They’ve even dedicated a whole section of their website to it: http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/healthy-eating/fats/Pages/butter-margarine.aspx
Taken from that website:
Butter is around 50% saturated fat – that’s the unhealthy fat that raises our cholesterol levels. Margarine is a much healthier choice because it has a maximum of only 20% saturated fat. Used daily in place of butter, margarine helps us to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system… This substitution is the simplest, single most effective change you can make to reduce the saturated fat in your diet,”.
So, while margarine contains the same amount of fat as butter, the types of fat differ in their proportions – butter contains a higher percentage of saturated fat, while margarine contains more polyunsaturated fat, which the Heart Foundation argues is sufficient to make it a healthier choice. Indeed, The Heart Foundation assigns their “tick” (a label indicating that The Heart Foundation “approves” a given food as being part of a “healthy” diet) to no fewer than 42 different varieties of margarine. Clearly, they believe in the stuff.
You’re shocked, I’m sure.
I hope this doesn’t come off as Sheree just beating up on The Heart Foundation – they’re not the only ones that believe margarine is God’s gift to heart health. Indeed, The Dietary Guidelines for Australians (2013) released by the Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council also opines that saturated fat will be our undoing (apparently it’s not even “essential” to the diet, a la monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat), and we need to replace butter with “spreads” that are higher in “good” fats. Ugh.
I’ll confess, I was once a margarine girl. I went nuts for the ol’ Flora Ultra Light. I spread it right onto my healthy whole-wheat bun. I spooned hunks of it into my healthy whole-grain banana bread batter. I’d studied the calorie counts, and found it to be the “lightest” option available in my supermarket. And I truly believed it was doing me good.
Then, my transition to Paleo happened.
Why I Made The Switch… Back!
As I started focusing less and less on what I had been told was “healthy eating”, and more and more on ancestral health and real whole foods, I came to realise that margarine was just plastic in butter’s packaging. I started noticing the smell, texture and taste of food more and more – and margarine was not coming out on top. But the biggest kick in the rear was when I stopped focusing on the calorie content and started looking at the ingredients list… Oh Lordy, yes, that is where the magic really happened.
See, I started to develop a pretty simple yet effective guideline for purchasing anything that comes in a package: if I recognise the ingredients as actual foods, and I’m pretty sure I could re-create it myself if necessary, then it should be alright to eat. If there are ingredients I don’t recognise, can’t identify, or can’t pronounce, chances are it shouldn’t be going in my mouth.
Exhibit A: the ingredients for the butter I use -
Organic Cream, Water, Salt
I recognise each of those constituents as foods, and give me half an hour on YouTube and I reckon I could have a pretty good crack at making it myself.
On the other hand, let’s examine Exhibit B: the ingredients list for a popular brand of margarine (I won’t name it, because that don’t seem cool…)
Vegetable Oils (Canola Oil (48%) Palm), Water, Salt, Non Fat Milk Solids, Emulsifiers (471, 322 from Soy), Preservative (202), Food Acid (330), Colour (160b), Natural Colour (100), Flavour, Vitamin A and D.
Seriously? Does that resemble a food to you?
Think about it for a minute. Do you know exactly what vegetable oil is? Do you know where it comes from, or how it is produced? What do emulsifiers look like? What is “Preservative (202)”? Is it animal, vegetable or mineral? Do you think you could recreate this concoction in your own kitchen?
I don’t know what kind of kitchen you have, but my answer is hell no.
What’s more, my butter HAS a “natural colour” – it doesn’t need one added to it. Or even two, come to that.
It has plenty of vitamin A and D all on its own – it doesn’t need them added in. What’s more, it’s got vitamin E, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iodine… What does margarine have? Oh, that’s right, some synthetic A and D, with some non-specific “Flavour” thrown in for good measure.
Let’s Be Real Here, For A Minute
I said at the start that I don’t want to get too technical here, and I don’t, so let’s just come at this from a real rudimentary layman understanding – forget everything you have been told by mainstream “nutrition” bodies for a minute. What, on its face, seems more healthy: a product with three recognisable ingredients that requires no industrial processing and contains a host of vitamins and minerals essential for health? Or a product that contains over a dozen ingredients, most of which are synthetic, manufactured in a laboratory, and/or require extensive industrial processing to make merely edible?
Would you rather eat a product that is naturally colourful and flavoursome, or a product that needs colours and flavours added in to make it palatable?
Who do you trust more with your health – a lab technician, or Mother Nature?
Don’t Get Me Wrong…
I realise I risk sounding a bit anti-establishment here, and I promise that’s not what I’m getting at. I think The Heart Foundation and our Government have made many health and nutrition recommendations that I can totally get behind. Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables – hell yeah! Increase your intake of fatty fish and omega-3 (monounsaturated fat)? Totally! But in this butter vs. margarine smackdown, they’ve got it arse-backwards.
The Heart Foundation, our Government, and almost every other mainstream nutritional body is completely ignoring the growing body of scientific literature that indicates omega-6 fatty acids (the polyunsaturated fats so lauded by our “experts”) are causing inflammation, the underlying factor in a scarily long list of modern diseases. They are making us sick and fat – indeed, they’re killing us slowly and painfully – and yet they are recommended wholeheartedly by those we entrust with our care. Polyunsaturated fats have never been so widely and easily available to the homo sapien – what once only appeared alongside omega-3s and other goodies in a natural package is now shovelled in our gobs in a highly refined and processed form, concentrating its toxic effects. I don’t want to be too alarmist, but vegetable oils – hydrogenated or not – are bad news, and yet our health and nutrition bodies stick their head in the sand, put their fingers in their ears, and sing the same old tune.
Okay, okay, I want to backtrack for a second – I feel like I’m being a bit “preachy”. I am not an expert, of any kind. I don’t have any relevant qualifications in this area. It’s really not my place to tell you what to put in your body. What I hope to achieve with this post is simply explain my thinking and reasoning on this issue, what I choose and why I choose it; I’d also like to draw attention to the fallibility of our health “experts”, and encourage you to think critically about these “official” recommendations. On an intuitive level, to me, the recommendations don’t make sense; when I read the science, they make even less sense. Go ahead and eat margarine if you wish - but please think about your choice beyond listening solely to the recommendations of The Heart Foundation, and explore the opinions of others with no vested interests.
Butter Is My Friend
Switching out margarine for butter was part of a bigger transformation for me – which many of you, readers and friends, have been privy to – from processed foods to real foods, from “health” foods to whole foods, from what I thought “should” be “good” to what I feel naturally inclined to eat. The shift is really symbolic in that sense. I thought I was happy eating margarine, I thought it was tasty, and I thought I was doing the right thing. I looked for the labels that said “high in omega-6″, because that was exactly what all the guidelines said to do.
When I started eating butter, I realised how wrong I was.
Butter tastes whole, it tastes real, it tastes natural – it doesn’t taste like plastic, manufactured in a lab. When you melt butter in a pan, the smell fills the house and gets my tummy rumbling. When you melt margarine in a pan… it kinda smells like nothing at all, and my stomach stays silent. I think somewhere along the way we’ve adopted this philosophy – not just about butter, but about food in general – that if it tastes good and whole, then it must be bad for us. I, for one, refute that wholeheartedly and without reservation.
This isn’t just a psychological response. I half expected my weight to balloon and my health to deteriorate as I started incorporating butter into my diet; that’s what every nutrition and health “expert” I had ever listened to had said. Quite the opposite happened. My LDL cholesterol went down, and – as per the most recent set of tests - all of my markers are now better than ever. Eating more saturated fat – from butter, and many other sources – allows me to stabilise my hunger, provides me with a bunch of fat-soluble nutrients, and actually improves my liver and CNS function. My weight certainly hasn’t spiralled out of control, the way “common sense” would suggest it should. I don’t expect my anecdotal evidence to hold up to scientific scrutiny, but it’s certainly enough to convince me that I’m onto a good thing. Personally, based on the evidence I have reviewed and the experiences I have had, I firmly believe that saturated fat is essential to healthy and happy living and eating; it helps prevent disease, it acts as a transporter for so many vital fat-soluble nutrients, it is the grease that keeps the cogs of our body turning. One of the best sources is butter. Plain and simple.
Do You Agree?
Of course, it’s completely up to you. You might think I’m bat crap crazy – and you wouldn’t be the only one. But, guess what? I’m not the only one saying this.
There is a growing community in Australia, speaking up with their concerns about margarine and other processed foods recommended by our government and the “official” health bodies. The voice is growing louder and louder – I’m not alone in this fight, and neither are you. I want to call upon The Heart Foundation, and other bodies, to seriously review their evidence and critically examine the assumptions on which their recommendations are based. Ultimately, I feel they are recommending foods that will make us fat, sick, and dead; yes, they have the best of intentions and I appreciate that, but that doesn’t make them right.
So, what can you do? The wonderful Jessie Reimers, over at http://thehealthyjessie.wordpress.com/ has started a petition, championing this cause, asking The Heart Foundation to get on board. If you’re on the same page as us, I beg you to head on over and “sign” the petition (just type in your name and email address) and add to the swelling community support. You all know how petitions work, I’m sure – the more names we get, and the more support we have, the more The Heart Foundation – and, indeed, our government and mainstream nutrition bodies more broadly – will be forced to listen.
The Take Home Message
I eat butter, and I am proud. I reject The Heart Foundation’s recommendation that highly processed, synthetic, weak substitutes in the form of “margarine” should be consumed in place of gloriously tasty golden butter. I think their argument that saturated fat is “bad” or “dangerous”, and should be minimised in the diet, is based on outdated science and faulty assumptions. I firmly believe that following The Heart Foundation’s recommendations would be detrimental to my health. And, above all else, butter is damn tasty.
If you agree with me, go ahead and sign the petition – ask The Heart Foundation to take a long hard look at the science, and itself, and come up with a better answer. We are not lone voices lost in the woods – we are a growing community that wants change, and if we band together, we’ll get it! :) Woohoo!
Once again, the petition can be found here: http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/heart-foundation-stop-endorsing-unhealthy-margarines-and-immediately-review-the-tick-of-approval-program