Like my grandmother before me, I have never had a tub of margarine in the house. Perhaps thanks to her, my gut instinct has always told me that butter is better for you. Not only does butter taste incomparably better, it’s a natural product that human beings have been eating and cooking with for centuries without damaging their health. Why swap it for margarine, a highly synthetic and unpleasant-tasting concoction laced with additives and cheap, low-grade oils refined on an industrial scale?
Especially, if I tell you that without colourings margarine isn’t yellow at all, but actually an appetite-crushing shade of sludgy grey. If my preference for butter began with instinct, in the past few years it’s been supported by a growing body of scientific research that not only indicates that there is absolutely no reason to stop eating butter, but also leads to one inescapable conclusion: that decades of government health advice, particularly in regard to heart disease, cholesterol levels and the consumption of fats and oils, have been plain wrong. It’s so wrong, in fact, that I believe the health establishment now owes us an apology.
We have been conned into believing that margarine was better for us than butter. The nation’s morning toast has been ruined for decades by kind-hearted women thinking they were doing the best for their husbands and children by switching from butter to marge.
Confronted with such a bleak, butter-free future, there will be many who will have wondered whether life was even worth living.That is why the latest news from scientists working in the U.S. will have been greeted with loud cheers at breakfast tables all over Britain — and, at mine, by a vehement ‘I told you so!’ For, having reanalysed a study originally carried out in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the scientists have confirmed what many of us have believed to be the truth for years. Margarine isn’t better for you than butter. In fact, margarine is actually more damaging to your health than butter.
The scientific evidence is compelling and totally at odds with decades of official advice that we should all be cutting down on our consumption of animal fats.
Taking a sample of middle-aged Australian men who had either experienced a heart attack or suffered from angina, half were advised to cut their animal fat intake and replace it with safflower oil (which is similar to sunflower oil) and safflower oil margarine, while the other half continued to eat as normal. If the unholy alliance of Government nutritionists and the food processing industry were right — and margarine really was better for you, as they’ve been claiming for decades — you’d expect the men who switched to safflower oil to live longer and have better health outcomes. The exact opposite turned out to be true. Those who ate more of the safflower-derived products were almost twice as likely to die from all causes, including heart disease. Suddenly, margarine isn’t looking the healthy option that those expensive marketing campaigns claim it to be. For a start, the once widely accepted wisdom that saturated fats are bad for you — an idea on which so much health advice is founded — is looking increasingly shaky.
So fast is the shift in scientific thinking that there is a growing belief that natural saturated fats — like those contained in dairy and meat, as opposed to those contained in marge — may actually turn out to be good for you. Certainly, these fats have already been identified as key components of cell membranes, essential for the production of certain hormones and having an important role to play in the transport and absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. Indeed, earlier this week, a meta-study (a study of studies, if you like) from America, covering almost 350,000 people, came to the sort of shock conclusion that a few years earlier would have made front-page news.
Now, however, it merely confirmed what a growing body of scientific opinion already believes — that there is, and never was, any good evidence linking intake of dietary saturated fats with blocked coronary arteries and heart disease. It was, of course, in the belief that the exact opposite was true that millions of us were persuaded to give up butter and switch to margarine. Now, perhaps, you see why our public health advisers should be in the dock explaining themselves. For so much of what we were told was gospel truth turns out to be plain wrong. Butter isn’t bad for you; in fact, it’s healthy, being high in vitamins, beneficial saturated fats, the sort of cholesterol that is vital for brain and nervous system development and various natural compounds with anti-fungal, anti-oxidant and even anti-cancer properties. Margarine, by contrast, has always been much worse for you than its profit-grabbing manufacturers have ever been prepared to admit.
In the early days, it was made with ‘hydrogenated fats’, which were so dense that solid concrete couldn’t have done a better job of blocking your coronary arteries. Honestly, this stuff was lethal.
Confronted with irrefutable evidence, the food-processing giants reluctantly went back to their laboratories and reformulated their product.
This time, they boasted, margarine would be made with ‘interesterified’ vegetable oils (a treatment that rearranges the fat molecules under high temperature and pressure, using enzymes or acids as catalysts).
It made the oils less dense and therefore, they hoped, less damaging to our health.
Why we should believe the manufacturers a second time around I haven’t a clue — especially as they never took responsibility for the tremendous damage they had done to global health with their hydrogenated fats — which are now banned in parts of the U.S. because of the concerns about the effects they have on our health. The best part of 20 years on, the components of margarine, or ‘spreads’ as food processors prefer to call them, may have changed, but the arguments over their impact on health have not.
Take the so-called cholesterol-busting spreads such as Benecol and Flora ProActiv. Yes, they use plant chemicals — sterols and stanols — to reduce cholesterol levels, but they do so at a time when long-held beliefs on cholesterol are beginning to look as shaky as those about saturated fats. There is emerging scientific evidence that overall health prospects may be better for individuals with above-average levels of cholesterol.
Once again, beliefs that have shaped official health diktats for decades are being turned on their head. More research urgently needs to be done, but that apology should precede it. ‘We got it wrong — sorry,’ would be a good start. As for the so-called hybrid spreads, such as Lurpak Spreadable, for example — well, butter mixed with a little vegetable oil may be conveniently spreadable, but is fairly pointless in a country where, for most of the year, butter is spreadable when kept at room temperature in a good, old-fashioned butter dish.
So the good news is that we can carry on eating butter (in moderation, of course) or even start eating it again if we were one of the millions duped into swapping it for unhealthy and unpalatable margarine.
But as we do, our faith in the official health agencies that shape our nation’s health policies is melting away faster than . . . well, butter off a hot knife.
Mail online, 7 February 2013