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Butter or Margarine?

INTERESTERIFICATION AND WHY “TRANS FAT FREE” DOESN’T MEAN MARGARINE IS SAFE

by Alex Boersma

When I was a kid, my mother achieved epic nutritional and gastronomical failure by trying to replace butter with margarine.  I’m not sure whether she did it because she was listening to Ancel Keys and his posse of saturated fat haters or because it was simply cheaper.  She is Dutch! 

 Even then, I remember wondering what they did to the butter to make it taste so bad.  Little did I or my mother know that they poisoned it with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.  It wasn’t until the early nineties that I began to realize just how epic the nutritional failure called trans fat actually was.  It wasn’t until 10 years later that the nutritional establishment finally but unapologetically withdrew its support for these chemically engineered fats.  Another half a decade had to pass before the food processors were forced at least to tell us when they were poisoning our food.  Of course, food processors have enough political clout to make sure they don’t really have to provide full disclosure.

Now we just have to get restaurants to comply!

trans fat free marg

Frankenbutter! 

Must be good for you if it has no trans fat!

 

Enter the process of INTERESTERIFICATION!

Interesterification is the food industry’s answer to trans fat bans. Interesterification dismantles normal triglycerides and plugs them up with fully hydrogenated soybean (or sometimes palm) oils.  Interesterification does not produce trans fats.  But is it safe? 

Not according to this paper.  Here’s what the people at Nutrition and Metabolism concluded:

“Both PHSO (trans fats) and IE (interesterified fats) fats altered the metabolism of lipoproteins and glucose relative to an unmodified saturated fat (palm oil) when fed to humans under identical circumstances.”

Seems like if you get about 20% of your daily calories from interesterified fats you can expect to lower your HDL (good cholesterol)  by 9% and increase both your blood sugar and insulin by about 20%.  Metabolic Syndrome, anybody?  Now if 20% of daily calories seems a little unrealistic to you, perhaps you’re right.  Most people who eat primarily home cooked meals won’t get anywhere close to that.  But with more than 20% of Canadians(and more than 30% of Canadian teens) eating at least one fast food meal per day, 20% of calories from interesterified fat may not be as far fetched as you think.  Besides, many who do cook at home use processed convenient foods laden with engineered fats rather than real foods like meat and vegetables.  And since most people will be blissfully unaware that the fats they are consuming are even more toxic than the trans fats being replaced, it stands to reason that the percentage of interesterified fat in the Canadian diet will continue to increase.

Regardless, this review paper, which examined the evidence from more than 25 human studies on interesterified fats, concludes that adverse health effects are measurable even when interesterified vegetable oil makes up only 8-12% of daily caloric intake.  It goes on to assume that these adverse effects are initiated at levels as low as 1 to 4%. You could probably get 1 or 2% of energy from intersterified fat just by spreading some frankenbutter on your daily ham sandwich!

Which might be OK if there was some sort of justifiable point!

Well, there is a point, but its not what you might think.  Sure, most people who actually eat frankenbutter do so because they mistakenly believe it is better for their health than the stuff that comes from cows.  But the real reason why trans fats, and now interesterified fats are so prevalent in our food supply is that they make food processing possible.  Without chemically engineered fats,  most processed foods would go rancid quicker than the porta-potties at an outdoor music festival.   In other words, food processing, which is the second largest manufacturing industry in Canada, worth more than $78 billion per year, needs engineered vegetable oils.  Our bodies, however, do not .

The truth is, our society is becoming more and more dependent on processed food.  Even if we do cook at home, we rarely take the time to do it from scratch.  When we shop, we turn to packaged food because it keeps longer and is easier to prepare.  In fact, only one quarter of Canadian families now eat a homemade meal from scratch every day, compared to half of all families in 1992.(stats canada)  The packages in which we buy our “convenient” food are littered with health claims, but rarely do we consider that these claims are marketing ploys, not nutritional science.

When it comes to engineered fats, the “nutritional science” behind those health claims are based primarily on the misguided presumption that saturated fats cause heart attacks.  This is clearly an out-dated presumption, as this 2009 meta-analysis concludes:

 ”A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiological studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD”

More specifically, another study found that butter intake did not predict cardiovascular disease, although – not surprisingly – margarine consumption did.  This relationship got stronger the longer the researchers followed it (and they followed it for a really long time).  Another very thorough review of dairy fat and heart disease came up with this conclusion:

“In summary, despite the contribution of dairy products to the saturated fatty acid intake of the diet, there is no clear evidence that dairy food consumption is consistently associated with a higher risk of CVD”

 

Forty years ago, when my mother began her little experiment with frankenbutter, she didn’t know any better.  For what its worth, the medico-nutritional establishment had no idea they were poisoning us with trans fats, although there was plenty of controversy – even then – about whether or not saturated fats were actually harmful.  Today, it is more clear than ever that saturated fat is not harmful.  It is also more clear than ever that chemically engineered fats are harmful. In the end, butter tastes better and has never been proven harmful.  Two things you can’t say about margarine!

I will leave you with two graphs stolen from Stephen at Whole Health Source.  Follow the red lines and decide for yourself whether or not you want to continue to be a part of this experiment with chemically engineered fats

 u_s_butter_and_margarine_consumption_1909-2004

u_s_heart_disease_mortality_1900-2005

I know, these graphs are open to a quagmire of confounding, but still?

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