In June 2014, Time magazine released an awesome article on the health benefits of butter. Refuting all previous notions that cardiovascular disease was attributed to this lovely yellow substance. Can I just say I was relieved? Finally, someone got the message out there. I can’t tell you how many times I have delivered presentations about fats and there would always be a group of people in the audience who were adamant that margarine was ‘prescribed’ by their doctor to help reduce cholesterol. Now the biochemistry behind margarine is a little technical and unnecessary, but this much is important. Margarine is not real food. It’s pretending to be better than butter, and it’s not. It used to be a hydrogenated fat, until very recently, Australia banned hydrogenation due to the detrimental health effects. Originally in liquid form, the fat is pumped with hydrogen to make it solid at room temperature. It makes it easier pack and ship; easier to spread, looks nicer than spreading liquid on your toast as you get the feeling that you’re eating butter, but not really. I guess the idea of ‘pumping hydrogen’ doesn’t sound sinister but believe me, it is. And it’s not just margarine, that trans fats are found. It’s in cakes, biscuits, pastries, deep fried foods and pretty much everything that calls for butter in the mass market. However as it’s cheaper and has a longer shelf life than butter, margarine is a lovely substitute that makes us believe we are eating something healthy.
For those who are wondering, ‘what’s so bad about trans fats?’ allow me to explain. There is very strong evidence that suggests trans fats increase the amount of bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein – LDL), and decrease the levels of good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein HDL) in our blood. This combined effect is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in Westernised countries. So now some of you are thinking, “Well butter is a saturated fat, surely that contributes to cardiovascular disease”. In all honesty, that was everyone’s belief. However since the introduction of margarine in our market, and the decline of butter consumption, cardiovascular disease has risen, instead of declining. Added to this is the fact that we are consuming, on average, an extra 400 calories a day. I will discuss more about this in a moment. But for now, I must say that since the strong evidence of trans fats and cardiovascular disease, Australia has taken action to ensure that hydrogenated margarines are not sold or manufactured for our consumption. How thoughtful…that only took four decades. Instead, we now have a wonderful new and shiny method of faking butter called esterification. Great, so hydrogenation is over, and esterification has taken its place. This is from The Heart Foundation’s website,
“The process of esterification is now used in margarines in Australia - the healthier oils are combined with other ingredients such as milk, water and salt to develop a smooth consistency for spreading. Lecithin (found in egg yolk) is added for helping to mix water with oil. This makes it possible to develop margarines that are lower in saturated fats and virtually free of trans fats.” http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/healthy-eating/fats/Pages/butter-margarine.aspx
Sounds harmless *eye roll*.
Being the nut that I am, I have to research everything to the N-th degree. Let’s break down ‘esterification’ shall we? The chemical process is boring; however, a fat/oil is comprised of 3-fatty acids and a triglyceride backbone. These are separated from one another. Then the fatty acids are mixed with fully hydrogenated oils and re-attached to the backbone to create new ‘healthy’ oil. This completely fake butter has virtually no trans fats (as you will see on the labelling of margarines) but instead we have a new fat with new dramas. Recent studies on this new fat have been conducted and the evidence is conflicted. Most of the positive research that I’ve found has been sponsored or conducted in Unilever’s labs (the crowd that makes the margarines). Other, non biased research, suggests that both hydrogenated and esterified oils increase fasting LDL’s; and even scarier is that after 4 weeks of consumption, esterified fats increased blood glucose by about 20%.
So, now back to the question I asked earlier, “Butter is a saturated fat, isn’t that bad for heart disease?” Yes it is. But the way I see it, it’s a natural food. Butter consists of cream, water and a little salt. Naturally occurring vitamin A and D are found in the cream among some other trace minerals.
Margarine consists of vegetable oils (canola – which is nasty, sunflower or olive oil), water, salt, emulsifiers (usually lecithin), beta-carotene or turmeric (to give a yellow glow), added vitamin A and D, food acids, preservatives, etc…. In my ‘Fats and Oils’ presentation, I try to explain that cardiovascular disease is only a problem with the fats oxidise and stick to the arteries. It’s a whole other blog that I will need to write up. In short, if you eat plenty of fruit and vegetables (and other high antioxidant foods) and exercise the risk of cardiovascular disease is much lower than someone who smokes, eats rubbish and doesn’t exercise. Butter is a wonderful food to be enjoyed in moderation.
Now, if I had to choose between the two, hands down, I would go the butter. Why eat something fake? Why eat something that my body has no idea how to metabolise? Secondly, heating margarine or cooking with it has detrimental effects in that the oils oxidise and end up elevating VLDL’s (the super bad cholesterol). Butter is more stable when heated. But for cooking and baking I prefer coconut oil which is far more stable at higher temperatures. For spreading on my toast and hot cross buns I can’t go past butter. Admittedly, I do make my own ghee (clarified butter) and use that to fry an egg or mix with my rice. It is divine! Yes, I will post the recipe steps in the next couple of days.
Convinced yet? Okay, one final note that may sway you to ditch the margarine. Butyric acid is naturally found in large quantities in butter (milk, cheese and other dairy products). Butyric acid possesses both preventive and therapeutic potential to counteract inflammation-mediated ulcerative colitis (UC) and colorectal cancer. That’s impressive!! It inhibits colonic tumour cells, and promotes healthy colonic epithelial cells. There are butyric acid supplements on the market that you can purchase and many people with UC do purchase to help their condition. However, you don’t have to consume large quantities to reap the benefits. A teaspoon of butter a day, is like spreading 2 pieces of toast. That's enough to get some benefit. Don't deny yourself the golden deliciousness.
If you want to try something amazing, try cultured butter. I can’t say I’ve seen it at Woollies, but my favourite health food store, Terra Madre, stocks it. I’ll see you there, leave one for me!
I'm a lover of fine food, amazing cheese and sharing with people I love.