Answer by: Sara Oldroyd, Utah State University Extension family and consumer sciences agent, Salt Lake County
With questions in abundance regarding whether butter or margarine is better for your health, it is important to know the facts. Consider these answers to frequently asked questions.
Q: Was margarine originally manufactured to fatten turkeys? I heard it killed the turkeys, so the people who put money into the research tried to figure out what to do with this product to get their money back.
A: Margarine was made to increase the shelf life of foods. Hydrogenation is the process of taking an oil (most often soybean, although canola, olive and other oils can be used) and adding hydrogen molecules to the chemical structure in order to make it more solid. This development increased the shelf life of foods so they could stay on the shelf for weeks instead of days. Though it may sound a bit unappetizing, in reality this process helped people save time and money…and Americans are all about that. We could assume that part of the manufacturing of margarine was to make money (that’s business as usual), but we should probably add that it benefitted the public as well with a safer and more stable food supply.
Q: I’ve heard you can purchase a tub of margarine and leave it open in your garage and within a couple of days, no flies, not even pesky fruit flies, will go near it. Why?
A: Flies swarm around things that smell, including rotting fruit or rancid butter. They won’t swarm around margarine because it doesn’t smell rancid for a much longer time due to hydrogenation. Oil can be kept in the cupboard instead of the fridge for this same reason. Since margarine is made of oil, it doesn’t go rancid as fast because of its chemical structure.
Q: Margarine is a white substance with no food appeal, so I heard yellow coloring was added to be sold to people to use in place of butter. Why are so many clever new flavorings and colorings added?
A: Oil, and hence margarine, do not taste like butter ? they are bland. Flavorings are added to appease the public’s taste. Both butter and margarine have yellow color added to make them look more appetizing.
Q: I heard that margarine is only one molecule away from being plastic. How can this be?
A: On a chemical level, both butter and margarine are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Plastic does not have the oxygen molecules, only long chains of carbon and hydrogen. In reality, butter and margarine are much closer in chemical structure than plastic is to either of them.
Q: I heard that margarine triples the risk of coronary heart disease. It increases total cholesterol and LDL (the bad cholesterol) and lowers HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). It increases the risk of cancers up to five-fold, lowers the quality of breast milk and decreases immune and insulin response. Is this true?
A: Trans-fatty acids have been shown to lower HDL, or good cholesterol, and raise LDL, or bad cholesterol. This increases the risk for developing heart disease. Butter, on the other hand, raises bad cholesterol but keeps the good cholesterol the same. For this reason, the FDA required labels to include trans fat amounts beginning in 2006, and some states have made it mandatory to provide this information on restaurant menus as well. This point has validated research behind it, whereas the other claims may not.
Q: Margarine does not rot or smell differently because it has no nutritional value; hence nothing will grow on it.
A: Margarine does have nutritional value — it’s a fat just like butter. Fat, no matter where it comes from, has 9 ca
lories per gram. Mold, bacteria and other microorganisms need more than just fat to grow ? they usually need some type of carbohydrate or sugar. Nothing will grow on butter either.
There are some truths to the claims listed above, but they are spread thin. Conclusions from research-based information regarding butter vs. margarine suggest we do the following:
• Stay away from trans fats (look for these on the label), but also watch your butter intake. Butter is high in saturated fats, which can lead to heart disease, but perhaps not quite as quickly as trans fats.
• Consume butter and foods that contain butter in moderation.
• Consider using stick butter in baking and a spreadable butter or trans-fat-free margarine for everything else. Spreadable butter and trans-fat-free margarine will alter baked products because they have added water and air, which most recipes do not take into account.
Direct column topics to: Julene Reese, Utah State University Extension writer, 435-797-0810 or julene.reese@.usu.edu.