Butter vs Margarine: the debate rages on

I was asked the other day to appear on my local BBC breakfast show to give my ‘expert’ opinion on the butter vs. margarine debate. The context was that the final of bake off had just been aired, and an article had been published in the guardian titled ‘butter nonsense: the rise of the cholesterol deniers’. 

So I went along on Wednesday (31stOct) morning at the crack of dawn to give my view on the whole matter and hopefully put to bed this ongoing debate. I have to admit, it was my first ever live radio appearance, and I was quite shell-shocked by the experience. I left the building only 20 minutes after I had arrived with an overall sense of disappointment at all the important things I hadn’t said. Still, I hope my overall message came through – that real food is always the better option. 

I thought I’d take the opportunity to write this article based on all the notes and research I had done prior to the interview, so I can really get across some of the key points. 

First of all, when considering the matter of butter vs. margarine, we have to ask ourselves why we ever stopped eating butter in the first place. Back in 1977 in the US and 1983 in the UK, new dietary recommendations were introduced, telling us to reduce our overall intake of fat and especially saturated fat, based on the theory that it was dietary fat that was clogging up our arteries and making us sick. This was the accepted dogma, based on a handful of studies that seemed to draw that conclusion. I recently read a thorough piece of research by Dr Zoe Harcombe et al. which unpicks all the research that was available at that time, going through it with a fine tooth comb, and concluding that there was actually never really any solid evidence to support this theory or the dietary fat guidelines (Harcombe et al., 2015). Another review and meta-analysis from 2015 finds ‘no association between saturated fat intake and all cause mortality’. (de Souza, et al., 2015). 

In the last few years there has been a rise in this alternative view – that it’s not as simple as dietary fat, saturated fat, or cholesterol being the single cause of heart disease, but more a complex web of factors that include many diet and lifestyle factors. However, any scientist, researcher or medical doctor who dares to question the status quo in the public domain, such as consultant cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra, risks being labeled a ‘dissident’ as in this guardian article(Bosely, 2018). There is a debate raging, and there’s no simple answer to the question ‘is saturated fat bad for us?’ 

However, there are some key points that we can be sure of, based on the evidence available, along with a sprinkling of common sense.  

1.    Fat is absolutely essential for life. We shouldn’t demonise it entirely, particularly when it comes to naturally occurring fats. They are needed for: 

·     Healthy cell membranes

·     Making hormones

·     Regulating inflammation (some are inflammatory, some are anti-inflammatory)

·     Boosting our metabolism 

·     Optimal brain health – our brain is made up of 60% fat!  

2.    Yes, fat is higher in calories than the other macronutrients - proteins and carbohydrates - but no one is advocating eating whole slabs of butter daily (except maybe some hardcore ‘high fat-low carb’ advocates, but that’s another story!). 

3.    Fat is found in foods that contain a whole load of other important nutrients – such as meat, dairy, eggs, coconuts, avocados, nuts and seeds. It doesn’t make sense that these foods would contain loads of beneficial nutrients but be ‘bad’ for us because of the fat content. We are biologically programmed to consume the fats from these naturally occurring foods (for more on this, see a recent podcast between functional medicine doctor Chris Kresser and Dr Zoe Harcombe here). Afterall, we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food. 

4.    Dietary cholesterol doesn’t really impact overall blood levels of cholesterol. Most cholesterol is made by the body, so we can adjust our own levels according to need. Here is a great article from Healthline which talks more about this. (Healthline, 2018).

Let’s take a closer look at the butter vs. margarine argument then, as this was the main talking point of the interview I did. 

Butter

Butter is made from churned milk or cream. Ever whipped your cream a bit too far and it’s curdled? Well you’re on you’re way to making butter. It contains one ingredient and can be made quite simply at home. 

Butter contains about 80% fat – made up of a mixture of saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and short chain fatty acids. All these different fats have different functions in the body. Short chain fatty acids, for example, are thought to promote a healthy gut flora (Deanna Minich, 2018). Butter also contains vitamins A, D, E, B12 and K2. These nutrients are vital for our immunity, skin, neurological functioning and our bone, eye and heart health. 

Butter does contain whey, a milk protein, which some people may be allergic to, so if you have a true milk allergy it’s best avoided. For people who are lactose intolerant, it only contains trace amounts so should be OK. 

Butter from grass-fed animals is far better than from grain-fed animals. Butter from grass-fed or pasture-raised animals has more of the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, and is higher in the fat-soluble vitamins and anti-oxidants.  

Margarine

There are many different types of margarine and butter-like spreads out there, all with varying ingredients that have undergone slightly different processes. One that I looked up prior to my interview was Bertoli original olive oil spread, which I thought people might consider one of the better ones as it’s made from heart-healthy olive oil. It listed these ingredients:

Vegetable oils (rapeseed, palm, sunflower), water, olive oil (21%), sweet whey powder, buttermilk, salt, emulsifier (mono and diglycerides of fatty acids), preservative (potassium sorbate), thickener (sodium alginate), citric acid, natural flavoring, vitamins A and D, colour (carotenes). (Bertoli.co.uk, 2018)

Ask yourself, could you make this at home? Even if you could get your hands on all of the ingredients, could you figure out how to put them all together and come out with a decent spread? 

The process of making these spreads is highly industrialised. It’s made via a process called ‘hydrogenation’, which means adding hydrogen atoms at high speed and temperature to a liquid fat (such as vegetable oil), which turns it into a solid. These solid fats are known as ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘trans-fats’. (Madehow.com, 2018).

Trans-fats are highly implicated in chronic disease risk. The FDA announced in 2015 that it was taking tans-fats out of the ‘generally recognized as safe’ category and encouraged the food industry to phase them out of use in their products. (FDA.gov, 2018)

So to answer the question, what’s better – butter or margarine, my answer will always be butter, especially from grass-fed animals. However, some people want to avoid butter for ethical reasons, may be allergic to milk or just don’t feel comfortable with the high fat content of butter. My answer to those people is to do what they do in the Mediterranean – just use olive oil! No need to put through a lot of chemical and heat processes to make it solid, just do what they do in Italy, Spain and Greece and use it for pouring and drizzling over your food. Let’s get away from this idea that we ‘need’ something to spread on our bread. 

When I was a kid, my grandmother took me to Greece. Before being served our meal in restaurants, they would always bring us bread, baked fresh in a local bakery, along side some olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. I’d pour the oil and vinegar onto my plate, sprinkle in some salt and pepper and dip the bread in. Delicious. Years later, I would go to Greece with friends in my late teens and early twenties, to some of the more touristy areas, and we’d be served butter or spread with our bread. I remember asking the waiter for oil and vinegar, and asking why we were given butter instead and the reply was that they thought that’s what us Brits wanted! 

Olive oil is one of the reasons why the Mediterranean is held up as an optimal, healthful diet. So if you’d rather avoid butter, and don’t want to replace it with margarine, then go for straight up, good quality, virgin olive oil.

The bottom line? Eat real food! There’s no need for anyone to be eating large quantities of butter, but added to steamed vegetables makes them taste great and helps us to absorb the fat-soluble nutrients found in the veg. Whilst I don’t advocate eating lots of processed bread products, if you want to enjoy some good quality wholegrain or sourdough bread from time to time, don’t be afraid to spread it with butter. And lastly, it’s great for low-heat cooking, as it’s a solid, so it’s more stable when heated than most vegetable oils. Use it to lightly sauté some greens or for making your scrambled eggs. 

Let me know your thoughts and comments. Happy buttering!

Oh and here’s a link to my radio interview if you want to have a listen. Listen from 1 hour 15 minutes in. Enjoy.

References

Bertolli.co.uk. (2018). Check out Bertolli Original from Bertolli UK. [online]. Available at: https://www.bertolli.co.uk/product/bertolli-original1[Accessed 31 Oct 2018]. 

Boseley, S. (2018). Butter nonsense: the rise of the cholesterol deniers. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/30/butter-nonsense-the-rise-of-the-cholesterol-deniers [Accessed 2 Nov 2018].

Deanna Minich. (2018). The Benefits of Butter: A Rich Source of Butyrate, Deanna Minich. [online]. Available at: http://deannaminich.com/the-benefits-of-butter-a-rich-source-of-butyrate/[Accessed 7 Nov 2018].

de Souza, R., Mente, A., Maroleanu, A., et al. (2015). Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. [online]. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h3978?ijkey=b637896898df032521f5911a509e1f0bd6b920db&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha[Accessed 7 Nov 2018]. 

Fda.gov. (2018).Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fats). [Online]. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/foodadditivesingredients/ucm449162.htm [Accessed 2 Nov. 2018].

Harcombe, Z., Baker, J. S., Cooper, S. M. et al.Evidence from randomised controlled trials did not support the introduction of dietary fat guidelines in 1977 and 1983: a systematic review and meta-analysis.Open Heart,2 (1)[Online]. Available at: https://openheart.bmj.com/content/2/1/e000196[Accessed 31 Oct 2018]. 

Healthline. (2018). Why Dietary Cholesterol Does Not Matter (for most people). [online] Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/dietary-cholesterol-does-not-matter [Accessed 7 Nov. 2018].

Madehow.com. (2018). How butter and margarine is made – manufacturing, making, history, used, processing, components, product, industry.[online]. Available at:http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Butter-and-Margarine.html[Accessed 7 Nov 2018].