Winter 2011 True Natural Health Magazine – Your Questions Answered
By Roger French
QUESTION: ‘To spread or not to spread – that is the question.’ I would appreciate your views on the health pros and cons of butter versus margarine. The multiple choices available in the supermarket only add to my confusion. I often use no spread at all, but hot-buttered toast is rather yummy to have occasionally.
Various sources associate margarine with numerous adverse health effects, including artery disease, eye damage, the consequences of trans fats, blood clots, cancers, lowered immunity and, it has been suggested, reduced quality of breast milk.
Seven years ago, one of Sydney’s leading ophthalmologists asked the question: can margarine send you blind? He then outlined how large amounts could contribute to macular degeneration. In the Autumn 2010 issue of our magazine (then titled Natural Health and Vegetarian Life), an American heart surgeon with 5,000 open-heart surgeries to his credit declared that he believes that polyunsaturated margarine – that was intended to prevent artery disease – is actually a major cause of it.
So bad are trans fats that some countries/states, including New York, are putting strict limits on the use of trans fats in processed foods. Most margarine brands are removing trans fats, but the process of removal is, according to one writer, just as bad.
People on strict plant-based diets would be better to use one of the alternative plant-based spreads mentioned below.
Poly margarine is high in the omega-6 essential fatty acid, linoleic acid, a major problem being that a high intake of omega-6 can cause blood to clot too readily. It also inhibits the conversion of the basic omega-3 fatty acid (alpha-linolenic acid) to DHA, an important omega-3 needed especially by the brain. Most people are consuming far too much omega-6 fats in the form of margarine, other hardened vegetable oils and liquid vegetable oils in bottles.
Omega-3 fatty acids have the opposite effect; they oppose blood clotting – which is why Eskimos (eating all that fish and blubber) bleed readily. The prominent omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid, is abundant in flax oil, walnuts and some other nuts and seeds. DHA and EPA are found abundantly in fish oil and in human breast milk where it is vital for the brain development of the infant. (This is why fish oils are promoted these days, although we much prefer the plant omega-3s.)
Because omega-3s are relatively scarce, while omega-6s are abundant, most people are consuming omega-6s and omega-3s in a potentially dangerous ratio. Rosemary Stanton, in her excellent book, Good Fats, Bad Fats, explains that on a natural diet, we would consume omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the proportion of 3:1 to 6:1. But mainly due to margarine and vegetable oils, the ratio is often 14:1 or up to 40:1.
This imbalance can cause blood clotting and inflammation and reduces the conversion of linolenic acid to EPA and DHA.
Another source of trouble is that polyunsaturated oils turn rancid very easily, and with processing and storage, the potential for rancidity is greatly increased. It is well established that rancid (oxidised) fats are major contributors to heart disease, stroke, cancer, macular degeneration and other degenerative conditions.
After all that, what is best – or least harmful – to put on bread? Unsalted butter is undoubtedly less harmful than margarine, simply because it is a pure ‘natural’ food free of additives. If a person has a triglyceride (blood fat) problem, then it is virtually essential to avoid both, at least until triglycerides have come down.
Superior to either would be mashed avocado, mashed banana, tahini, peanut butter or even (home-made) ‘extended butter’. It is easy to make extended butter. Put into a blender one packet of unsalted butter at room temperature, one cup of olive oil and one cup of water, also at room temperature. Blend until smooth, then place in an airtight container in the fridge. Not only is this as spreadable as margarine, but it contains only one-third the amount of saturated fat.
So it is partly true that margarine can send you blind, cause heart disease and stroke and possibly even make a contribution to cancer – if it is eaten regularly, that is.
One final gem re poly marg. It is just one molecule away from being plastic. This is why flies and microorganisms won’t touch it. After all, would you melt your Tupperware and spread that on your toast?