Thursday, January 3, 2013

Margarine comes back

It's a new year, and it's also time to package up old myths as though they were new.  I saw another one come around on the Internet the other day about margarine.  There are a variety of versions of this myth and meme, but most of them go something like this:
1) Margarine was created to fatten turkeys but it killed them.  The mysterious creators of this product wanted money so they sold it to humans.   Alternatively, the origins of margarine are listed as part of the creation of soap or lubricant for WW II planes.  In all of them someone wanted money and sold it to the American public as part of a conspiracy.
2) Eating margarine increases heart disease because of a study done by Insert Prestigious Sounding University here.
3) Butter contains "many nutrients" but margarine doesn't (no nutrients  listed).
4) Butter tastes wonderful, margarine does not.
5) Butter has been around a long time, margarine less than one hundred years.
6) Contains trans fats, alters the cholesterol ratio in a non-favorable way, causes cancer, lowers breast milk quality, causes diabetes, decreases immunity, lowers the resale value on your home (just trying to see if you are paying attention!)
And then they usually hit you with the punchline.
7) Margarine is one molecule away from plastic!  Bugs won't eat it!  Put it in a time capsule and 100 years later it will still be there!
Now, is there any evidence to support those claims?  Let’s take a look at each one.
1)  Fortunately, one doesn’t have to look very far to find this has no basis in fact.  Back in 1869, a French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès created a butter substitute for the lower classes and the military at the behest of Emperor Louis Napoleon III.   Now, I could see how some people might eventually twist this into the French upper class wanting to hurt the lower class, but usually you do want to give soldiers enough food so they can actually fight, so I don’t really see a conspiracy there.     If anyone has any information on how this story somehow evolved into “fattening turkeys” I would like to know.  Now, margarine did become used more often in the WW II era because food rationing limited the availability of animal fats, but once again I don’t really know how they got “airplane lubricant” out of that.  Maybe someone thought the taste was comparable, but I don’t want to know how they figured that out.
2) There is some twisted truth here, as apparently this “claim” comes from a study done in the 1980’s looking at trans-fats in general.  At that time, margarine contained a lot more trans fats that what we see today, and remember the study would have looked at other sources of trans fats besides margarine.  So, we can’t really rely on this claim given the different state of margarine today, and if someone refuses to use margarine but still smokes, eats excessive amounts of fast food (where trans fats are found) eats too many processed carbs, doesn’t exercise, has a family history of heart disease, etc you can still increase your heart disease risk.  Usually whenever someone makes a claim that one thing does another and ignores all the other factors you should be suspicious.  Now, once again, if you get a lot of omega-6 fats in your diet you might be setting yourself up for inflammation, would could also up your heart disease risk, but I’m also getting worried about your calorie intake at that point.
3) Well, butter does contain fat, but it really doesn’t contain a significant amount of vitamins and minerals, so this claim doesn’t hold water either.  Now, we do need to eat a certain amount of fat for cell membrane function, satiety, and to absorb certain vitamins, but we won’t actually get those from butter itself.
4)  Well this claim is up to the individual and I don't have a good record of who rates what higher on a hedonic scale.  Keep in mind though that margarine does have quite a following among Jewish people who keep the dietary laws of Kashrut which forbids mixing meat and dairy at the same meal.  Those of us who don’t tolerate dairy or who eschew animal products have also historically relied on margarine and other spreads, and since some of us can be quite loud in our request for alternatives it appears the taste and texture is an improvement over what the WW II generation had.  And of course we should never undervalue what good taste and texture does for helping someone stay on their new and improved diet.
5) No, see point number one.  Although they might be referring to the different incarnations that margarine has gone through, this is still an example of a logical fallacy called an Appeal to ancient Wisdom.  Older does not make it better.
6) Once again, there is a lot of twisting of a strand of truth here.  A high intake of trans fats does seem to be associated with an unfavorable lipid profile (in other words, raises LDL [bad] cholesterol and might lower HDL [good] cholesterol, a higher cancer risk, and more insulin resistance which can eventually lead to diabetes.  But, if today's margarine's don't have the trans fats, then we really cannot use this argument against margarine.   Once again, using too much vegetable oil can lead to an over consumption of omega-6, but that is not even part of the argument here.

7) And here is where the crazy people show their complete lack of chemistry.  Dan O'Brien over at said it the best: Saying something is "one molecule away" from plastic is like saying a farm is one letter away from a fart. Water is "one molecule away" from being explosive hydrogen gas. (Read the rest of this article here ). In other words, you can have chemically similar things that are still very different in reality.

Now, as fascinating as all this is, I am sure you are still wondering what to choose, and of course the answer is--it depends.  If you do not tolerate dairy like yours truly, make use of olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, etc as often as you can.  Choose an omega-3 supplemented non-hydrogenated spread like the ones made by Earth Balance (they make a soy free one too!).  If you do tolerate dairy, choose a high quality, preferably grass fed butter and once again make use of the olive oil, etc so that you get a variety of fats.  And please watch what you are putting it on.  People who eat mostly protein and vegetables and season it with butter or a high quality spread are still going to have a lower calorie intake, and less cardio vascular risk than those who are eating large amounts of bread/pasta/rice/pastries/pie crust, etc. (and you know who you are!)

Take home message--Butter might be a better choice for those who tolerate dairy, but not for the reasons above.


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