By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
For decades, more Americans opted for margarine on their biscuits and toast instead of old fashioned butter. Behind such popularity was a nasty fear of saturated fat, including the kind found in buttermilk, the source of butter.
Food manufacturers and medical organizations, such as the American Heart Association, have long promoted the use of margarine as the heart healthy option over butter. The motivation for the manufacturers, that make and sell margarine, is obvious. For the medical establishment, it’s been the fact that butter contains two alleged assassins of good health: saturated fat and cholesterol. Margarine products are made with unsaturated fats, from assorted vegetable oils.
Things are changing. Americans are switching back to butter, according to a market research survey reported in a 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal. The revival is based in part by new enthusiasm for butter-laden recipes from celebrity chefs and cooking shows.
There’s also another more serious side to the shift: the changing scientific view about fats.
For one thing, saturated fats are not the cause of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks, as they have long been accused of. See a video and article below that I wrote about the evolving attitude of medical researchers.
Americans have also become more concerned about trans fats, altered fats from food processing and from frying, that are highly inflammatory. Such fats are used in many margarine products, but, happily, less and less of them. But the omega-6 fatty acid vegetable oils that go into making margarine are inflammatory and likely genetically modified to boot. That’s a double negative for avoiding them in my opinion.
A 2013 study in the British Medical Journal found, in fact, that replacement of dietary saturated fats, including butter, with omega-6 fatty acids from safflower oil and safflower oil polyunsaturated margarine contributed clearly – and surprisingly − in more deaths among men aged 30-59 who had experienced a recent coronary event. In other words, replacing butter with margarine did not help these middle aged men with cardiovascular disease eat healthier; it may have even shortened their lives.
These findings go directly against mainstream beliefs that margarine is a better choice than butter. The researchers attributed this surprising result to the fact that the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid is not only the most abundant fatty acid present in LDL cholesterol, but that it is also highly susceptible to oxidation. And oxidization of byproducts of these fatty acids have been linked to cardiovascular disease.
“These findings could have important implications for worldwide dietary advice to substitute omega-6 linoleic acid, or polyunsaturated fats in general, for saturated fats,” the researchers concluded.
Saturated fats like butter and coconut oil are more stable, less prone to oxidation, which makes them more cardiovascular system-friendly.
You can find more information about healthy fats like olive oil and unhealthy fats, as well as my opinion on the so-called cholesterol problem, in this article here. If you do have cholesterol concerns, just know that saturated fat actually raises HDL cholesterol, the beneficial cholesterol.
In short, butter is natural. Margarine isn’t. But please opt for organic butter to avoid the unnatural hormones that are administered to conventionally-grown dairy cows. Eat it, and enjoy it, in moderation.
- American Heart Association. Common Misconceptions about Cholesterol.
- Gee K. Butter Makes Comeback as Margarine Loses Favor. Wall Street Journal. June 25, 2014.
- Ramsden C, et al. Use of dietary linoleic acid for secondary prevention of coronary heart disease and death; evaluation of recovered data from the Sydney Diet Heart Study and updated meta-analysis. British Med. 2013;346:e8707.
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