The true saturated nature or so-called “polyunsaturated” vegetable oil products (margarine is one) which are made by the chemical process called hydrogenation and are certainly not “polyunsaturated”.
Many people misunderstand this terminology and rightly so because there is a deliberate commercial advantage in representing “margarine” as a “healthful” alternative to butter.
Nevertheless, it is of no consequence how unsaturated or “polyunsaturated” the source oils may be that go into the production of margarine, these oils are still saturated fats by virtue of the hydrogenation process they undergo to turn them into a solid at room temperature spread.
Even when these products claim to contain “no cholesterol’ their artificially saturated chemical composition will still stimulate the body to produce cholesterol once eaten.
MARGARINE VERSUS BUTTER: A STRANGE HISTORY
In 1869, Europe experienced a cattle plague which made dairy products (like butter) scarce and expensive. A French food chemist managed to create a butter substitute he called “margarine” – a word derived from the Greek word for “pearl” because this original product was hard, white and glossy like a pearl. This product was initially made from beef fat, milk, sheep stomachs and cows udders, all treated with heat, lye and pressed into “cakes” of semi-solid fat.
This early attempt to substitute butter had the main appeal of being cheap and was considered a food for the poor.
POOR COUSIN TO BUTTER
By the early 1900’s, food chemists discovered how to harden vegetable oils by combining them with hydrogen and the process of hydrogenation was born. Thus, vegetable and fish oils became the main ingredients for “margarine” and thereafter manufacturers bought up all the cheapest oils they could and subjected them all to hydrogenation hardening them into margarines.
After World War I, only vegetable oils went into margarine, but it remained the poor cousin to butter and still considered a food for the lower classes.
Since the 1920’s, food chemists have ingenuitively used a number of chemicals and other additives to “improve” margarine to make it look, spread, and taste just like butter. By now the cheapness of margarine was being promoted as a virtue and dairy butter suffered by the comparison.
With the advent of more and more scientific research into health issues such as heart disease and its relation to diet, butter suffered more bad press while the seemingly preferable vegetable oils gained ground, what the margarine manufacturers banked on was the public’s short-lived understanding of chemical processes whereby “Polyunsaturated” or “good” oils could still seem acceptable in a highly refined hydrogenated product – no longer “Poly-un” but not clearly labelled as “saturated” either.
I wonder if we would all nish to buy “Artificially coloured, preserved, and flavoured saturated vegetable fats” if margarine were thus more truthfully labelled? Butter, in the meantime, continues to be painted as the culprit saturated fat responsible for arteriosclerosis and heart disease.
STUDIES SHOW MARGARINE NOT HELPFUL IN REDUCING HEART DISEASE
The New England Journal of Medicine (1990) reporting the work of two Dutch scientists notes that people on diets high in hydrogenated fats (like margarine) for as little as three weeks showed less beneficial HDL cholesterol (the so-called “good” or high density cholesterol) in their blood than people who consumed monosaturated oils (like olive oil) or saturated fat (butter).
Accompanying this result, according to the report in the Journal, was the noted increase in detrimental LDL cholesterol (the so-called “bad” or low density cholesterol) in the blood of these same test people on high hydrogenated fat-type diets.
If chemical hydrogenated fats are saturated fats, and butter is also a saturated fat, then why the difference in the body’s reaction to the two and why does one fat elevate “bad” cholesterol while the other elevates “good” HDL cholesterol in the bloodstream?
The answer appears in a comparison of the different chemical structures of the fatty acids both fats contain. Remember “fatty acids?” These are the compounds that the body utilises from a variety of food we eat to manufacture necessary body-function substances like hormones, enzymes and anti-inflammatory agents.
Butter, as a natural product, has component fatty acids that are structurally similar to the fatty acids already present in our bodies. On the other hand, the chemical process of hydrogenation which produces margarine transforms the fatty acids present in the product into unnatural forms that are difficult for the body to break down.
GREATER DEMAND OF VITAMIN E
Add this challenge to our digestive processes and we get a greater demand of the body’s reserves of Vitamin E, the natural antioxidant required to keep these manufactured fats from going rancid. It is clear these fats present an inherent imbalance problem.
To maintain a better “balance” in our choice of fats/oils, it is recommended we remember the daily limit of 15-30 grams of total fats from whatever source, keep only natural food oil products going through our digestive systems and guarding against rancidity by watching our Vitamin E intake.
THE “BETTER BUTTER” ALTERNATIVE
As an alternative to margarine, try “extended butter” which combines the good qualities of unprocessed vegetable oil with natural unsalted butter. You can easily make this spread at home.
Blend together in your food processor (or try smaller amounts whipped with a fork) equal parts of olive oil (or other good-quality vegetable oil), unsalted butter at room temperature and water. To make a large amount, try one cupful of each of the above (less if you are mixing by hand).
Whip all together and store in the refrigerator, this spreads easily even straight from the refrigerator and is a good natural way to get the essential fatty acids the body needs daily.
Disclaimer: The information in this post should not take the place of medical advice. Talk to your health care providers about what may be best for your health.