There is still some debate over whether we should be using “butter” or “margarine.” The primary concern over butter is its saturated fat content. Butter does indeed have more saturated fat than margarine. However, the insinuation that saturated fat is 100% bad is incorrect. Here are some details to help you make better choices when it comes to your diet and choosing butter or margarine.
Make up almost half of cell membranes, providing necessary stiffness and integrity. This is especially important for brain function.
Are important for lung function – Phospholipids contain 100% saturated fatty acids and act as a lung surfactant. (1)
Maintain healthy bones - For calcium to be effectively incorporated into the skeletal structure, at least 50% of the dietary fats should be saturated. (2)
Protect liver from alcohol, medication and other toxins (3)
Help the body utilize essential fatty acids - Elongated omega-3 fatty acids are better retained in the tissues when the diet is rich in saturated fats. (4)
Surround the heart muscle and are used as a reserve in times of stress.
Have antimicrobial properties that protect against harmful microorganisms in the digestive tract.
Saturated fat, which mainly comes from animals sources, is said to increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. However, new studies are showing that it is the type of animal that is the problem. For example, fast or processed food sources often contain nitrates and other chemicals that cause inflammation in the body. Grain-fed beef, which is the predominant source, may also cause inflammation.
When inflammation occurs, the body sends out LDL cholesterol to patch up the inflammation…much like spackling a wall. If the root cause (inflammation) is not addressed, the body will continue to produce LDL cholesterol, elevating cholesterol levels. If you take medication to reduce your cholesterol, you may be reducing your body’s ability to manage the inflammation.
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes will provide the necessary nutrients and fiber a body needs to properly utilize saturated fats. Additionally, healthy fats like the omega 3 found in nuts, avocados, eggs and fish lubricate the blood and work with saturated fats to provide the body with many health benefits.
If that’s not enough to convince you to eat butter instead of margarine, then let’s take a look at margarine and how it’s made. Margarine is a highly processed, unnatural substance. While margarine is derived from vegetables, after processing it ends up being a very different substance from where it began.
Margarine starts out as healthy monounsaturated oils from seeds and mostly polyunsaturated oils derived from vegetables. Unfortunately, the polyunsaturated oils are immediately converted to unhealthy oils when they are heated. Heating is BAD for polyunsaturated fats, as they are very unstable and change drastically when heated. Heated polyunsaturated fats may contribute to the following health issues:
Dysfunctional immune system
Disruption of prostaglandin production (prostaglandin is responsible for many bodily functions, such as muscle relation and contraction, blood vessel dilation and constriction, blood pressure and inflammation control)
Depressed learning ability
Reproductive organs damage
Increased levels of uric acid (uric acid is essential a product of improperly digested food)
Vegetable oils should never be used for cooking. The only exception is olive oil, which contains more monounsaturated fat than polyunsaturated fat and is, therefore, more stable for cooking. “Extra light” olive oil is best for higher-temp cooking, as it has a higher smoke point. Monounsaturated fats (derived from nuts and avocados) are even more stable and better for high-temp cooking.
Aside from heating, other problems emerge as margarine is manufactured. The substance is bleached, deodorized and plasticized, removing all nutritional elements. Because the substance is left with no color, flavor or nutrition, these elements are then added at the end of the process. Again, margarine is highly processed and drastically changed from its original state. Even the newer margarines (like “Smart Balance” and “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter”) that no longer use hydrogenation still maintain many of the manufacturing processes that make margarine unhealthy.
The bottom line is that nature is always going to be better than something manufactured in a laboratory. The human body knows exactly what to do with nature and may not know how to fully process a chemical substitute. Additionally, we must remember to look at the big picture with regard to food. Once we start messing around with nature, we can create “frankenfoods” that may have devastating effects. We just need to ensure we have a balance of different foods and not focus on only one food group, thinking that only one will provide what we need. We need a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and micronutrients in order to be healthy.
(1) Mary G. Enig, PhD is the author of Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol, Bethesda Press, May 2000.
(2) Watkins, B A, et al, "Importance of Vitamin E in Bone Formation and in Chrondrocyte Function" Purdue University, Lafayette, IN, AOCS Proceedings, 1996; Watkins, B A, and M F Seifert, "Food Lipids and Bone Health," Food Lipids and Health, R E McDonald and D B Min, eds, p 101, Marcel Dekker, Inc, New York, NY, 1996
(3) Nanji, A A, et al, Gastroenterology, Aug 1995, 109(2):547-54; Cha, Y S, and D S Sachan, J Am Coll Nutr, Aug 1994, 13(4):338-43; Hargrove, H L, et al, FASEB Journal, Meeting Abstracts, Mar 1999, #204.1, p A222.
(4) Garg, M L, et al, FASEB Journal, 1988, 2:4:A852; Oliart Ros, R M, et al, "Meeting Abstracts," AOCS Proceedings, May 1998, 7, Chicago, IL