For many years people have debated the merits of guns vs. butter as symbols of spending on military might or domestic comfort. Since 1869 another political debate has gone on, this one concerning the merits of margarine vs. butter. In that year a French food chemist succeeded in making a cheap substitute for the real thing, which had become scarce and expensive in the wake of a European cattle plague. The word margarine came from the Greek for "pearl," because the original version was hard, white, and glossy. It also must have been less than appetizing since it was made from beef fat, milk, and chopped sheep's stomachs and cows' udders, all treated with heat, lye, and pressure.

In its early years margarine was a meat product dependent on the beef and dairy industries and whose main appeal was its low cost relative to butter. In this period it was exclusively a food of the poor. In the early 1900s, food chemists discovered how to harden liquid oils by reacting them with hydrogen in the presence of metal catalysts and heat. Vegetable and fish oils then became raw materials for margarine, weakening its ties to the meat industry. Manufacturers bought up the cheapest oils they could find throughout the world, reduced them all to bland neutrality through chemical processing, and hardened them into margarine, which remained a food of the poor.

By the 1920s only vegetable oils went into the product, and over the next 30 years, busy food chemists, using a host of chemical additives, greatly improved the spreadability, appearance, and, especially, flavor of margarine, always working toward the goal of greater resemblance to butter.

The improved margarine's appeal was still its lower cost, but now its sales increased enormously, seriously threatening the butter industry. The butter people responded with a bitter and dirty political fight to hamper sales of margarine, but in the end, they were to lose out because of an unforeseen change in consumer perceptions. In our lifetimes people have come to see margarine not simply as a cheap substitute for butter, but as a healthy alternative to it, and this change has occurred particularly among the educated and affluent. For example, when I look in the refrigerators of fellow physicians, I find margarine instead of butter more often than not.

This new view of margarine, which North Americans now consume four times as much of as butter, developed along with an awareness of the role of saturated fat and cholesterol in producing atherosclerosis, the degenerative condition of arteries that predisposes us to heart attacks, strokes, and other circulatory diseases. Butterfat is the most saturated animal fat in the American diet, and butter contains a lot of cholesterol as well. As doctors became convinced of the dangers of saturated fat and cholesterol, they began to recommend margarine to patients, and the margarine industry capitalized on this development by emphasizing new formulations made exclusively from polyunsaturated vegetable oils, like safflower, corn, and soy. Producers also stressed that margarine contains no cholesterol. So it is that doctors, like other health-conscious Americans,
tended to switch from butter to margarine. Many of these people will admit that they prefer the taste of butter but consider margarine better for them.

I do not share this view, and I predict that over the next decade medical research will demonstrate clear health hazards of eating margarine.

In the first place, it is total fat in the diet that correlates with risk of premature death and disability from the major killing diseases in our society. If there is one undisputed fact that emerges from the confusion of modern nutritional research, it is that typical high-fat diets are killing us. Most people will live longer, feel better, and have less risk of early death from heart disease, stroke, and cancer if they keep their far intake to well below 30 percent of calories in the diet, preferably in the range of 20 percent. This is much less than most Americans eat. One way to cut down on fat is to avoid both butter and
margarine, especially as spreads for bread, and toppings for potatoes and other vegetables. It is easy to learn to like good bread without anything on it and to enjoy fresh vegetables plain or with low-fat sauces.

Second, although the danger to our hearts and arteries from saturated fat in the diet is clear, many people do not understand that the process of hardening vegetable oils by artificial hydrogenation creates saturated fat. In fact, the chemical term "saturation" refers to the percentage of carbon atoms in fats that are bonded fully with hydrogen atoms. The more saturated a fat, the higher the temperature at which it will liquefy.

When stored in the refrigerator, polyunsaturated vegetable oils remain clear and still pour easily. Saturated fats like beef suet, bacon grease, and butter become opaque and hard in the cold. No matter how unsaturated the oils are that go into margarine, they are made more saturated by the very process that turns them into a harder spread. Most brands of margarine do not disclose the percentage of saturated fat they contain, and even though they contain no cholesterol, they still stimulate your body to make cholesterol when you eat them. So the "heart-friendly" advantage of margarine over butter is not so great as advertised. Butter, unless it is certified as "organic," is likely to contain residues of drugs given to cows.

Butter may also contain residues of pesticides and other environmental toxins. All of these compounds tend to concentrate in fat, making high-fat dairy products more dangerous than lowfat or, especially, nonfat ones. Of course, butter is the ultimate highfat dairy product. Margarine should be free of drugs, but depending on where its oils come from, it may contain pesticide residues and other toxins. It may also have dozens of chemical additives. So on this score, butter and margarine
probably rate about the same. The most significant area of comparison is the different chemical structures of the component fatty acids of the two. Butter is basically a natural product, and its fatty acids are structurally similar to the fatty acids in our bodies. The heat and chemicals used to transform vegetable oils into margarine change fatty acids into unnatural forms that may be most unhealthy to eat. Unsaturated fatty acids have points of molecular strain, where carbon atoms are connected to each other by double or triple bonds instead of being fully occupied by hydrogen atoms. These strain points determine the
three-dimensional configurations of molecules.

In nature, all of these molecules have a curved shape that allows them to fit neatly into the membranes that enclose all cells and many of the structures within them. Chemists call this natural shape the cis-configuration. Heat and harsh chemical treatment can cause unsaturated fatty acids to spring open into a different shape called the trans-configuration, which looks jointed instead of curved.

The body cannot incorporate trans-fatty acids into membranes, and if it tries to do so, deformed cellular structures may result. Eating trans-fatty acids in margarine, vegetable shortening, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils probably increases cancer risks, promotes inflammation, and accelerates aging and degenerative changes in tissues. I am convinced
enough of these possibilities to try to eliminate those fats from my diet.

Many people ask me whether I think it is better to eat butter or margarine. They should be asking whether it is worse to eat butter or margarine, because both are concentrated fats that contribute to the unhealthy excess of fat calories that most of
us consume. I don't keep either of them in my house. But if I were forced to make a choice, I'd take the real thing in modest amounts, and I recommend that choice to you as well.

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Copyright Thomas Stearns Lee, N.M.D., 1998, 1999

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