Remember “I can’t believe it’s not butter?” Well, don’t let the tagline tempt you – when it comes to your health, there’s no substitute for the real thing.
When looking for a spread for your morning toast, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the plethora of margarines and other manufactured spreads that promise everything from “lowering cholesterol” to “heart health.”
So, what’s a health-conscious, savvy consumer to reach for when faced with these choices?
Let’s start with a short history lesson on margarine… a version of the margarine we know today was developed in a lab in the early 1900s. Seeking to provide an alternative for those who couldn’t afford butter, chemists came up with different blends of oils that underwent a process called hydrogenation to harden them to become spreads. These spreads include fake flavors to simulate the real taste and consistency of butter.
Over the years, the look, taste, and appearance of margarine has improved considerably, but is there really a health or heart benefit? Is there truth to the claims of improved health?
As Marion Nestle so elegantly writes in her book, What to Eat, “No matter what their labels say, all margarines are basically the same – mixtures of soybean oil and food additives. Everything else is theater and greasepaint.”
What are the health reasons to avoid margarine?
1. It contains Trans Fat: hydrogenation, the chemical process required to harden soybean and other oils into a spread, significantly increases the risk of heart disease. Walter Willet, MD, Professor of Epidemiology and Chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, states that trans fat represents “the biggest food processing disaster in history.” Even if you avoid using margarine on your morning toast, it is in everything from bakery products to packaged crackers, cookies and desserts. It’s hard to avoid unless you are making all your own food and eating at home.
2. It contains omega-6 fats: omega-3 fats are the necessary fats both our brains and bodies need to help lower inflammation, insulin resistance and disease processes. Omega 6-fats are necessary in small amounts, but have a pro-inflammatory effect. Research shows that 100 years ago, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in our diet was approximately 2 to 1. Estimates show as our food supply has changed the ratio is as high as 20 to 1 and rising, which may be part of the health epidemic with inflammatory conditions on the rise like arthritis, cancer and heart disease.
3. It contains emulsifiers, additives, artificial flavors and colorings: since the color of margarine is grey, it is bleached white with yellow dye added for the appearance of butter. The artificial flavorings are also added to create a butter taste. Finally, preservatives like BHT are added to create stability.
4. Many have plant sterols added: although plant sterols have been advocated as “heart-healthy” by some healthcare professionals, and are added to margarines to lower cholesterol, these estrogen compounds can lead to endocrine problems and actually promote cardiovascular disease.
So what is the alternative? The best choice is to use a little organic grass-fed butter. It’s a real food, free of trans fat and additives. You may be worried about the saturated fat, but in moderation, it’s better for you than the trans fats or other ingredients found in margarine. You can also substitute extra-virgin cold-pressed olive oil high in monounsaturated fat. Your body prefers real whole foods in their natural state. Skip the man-made margarine and enjoy the taste of real fat for optimal health.