Butter, Margarine and Transfats

By Dr. Harold Gunatillake

There were no bad fats or good fats long time ago. Men were hunters, and they brought home game to be cooked and shared by the family. Of course, they ate cooked flesh having plenty of saturated animal fats, and a small amount of monounsaturated fats. The total amount of fat in our diet today, according to MAFF National Food Survey, in America, is almost the same as it was at the beginning of this century. What has changed, to some extent, is the type of fat eaten. Now we are tending to eat more polyunsaturated fats- its what we are advised to do. Heart disease was not known then, until the nineteen fifties when American researches pointed that the epidemics of heart disease were caused by cholesterol in saturated fats in the food. In 1953 another American, Ansel Keys compared levels of this disease in seven countries with the amounts of fat consumed, and so was born the ‘Diet-Heart’ hypothesis. Strangely, Ancel recorded that cutting down on vegetable oils and margarine will reduce the incidence of heart disease, and not the saturated animal fat However, it was discovered that vegetable oils, composed largely of unsaturated fats and oils, tended to lower blood cholesterol levels, while saturated fats tended to raise them.

With the advent of the ‘Prudent Diet’ in the USA in 1982, and COMA’s introduction of ‘healthy eating’ in Britain two years later, the fats in our diet changed even more dramatically; we were told to avoid animal fats such as butter and lard, which have a larger component of saturated fats, in favour of largely polyunsaturated vegetable margarines, and cooking oils. Polyunsaturated fats became popular as they reduce the level of bad cholesterol in the blood, whilst the saturated counterparts increased the levels.

Yes, the saturated fat in butter causes increased blood cholesterol, but we must also appreciate that it is a valued component of many traditional diets and a source of nutrients. Today, cholesterol levels in blood can be brought down, by most people to normal levels by taking a variety of ‘statins’ available in Pharmacies, such as Simvastin, Lipitor, Zocor, to name a few, on doctors’ prescriptions, which were unavailable at the time when butter was condemned. One could still be careful with diet, and enjoy a butter spread with breakfast.

Among the nutrients in butter, fat soluble vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin K and vitamin E, as well as all their naturally occurring cofactors needed to obtain maximum effect, should be considered as essential components for healthy living. In our tropical country sufficient vitamin D is formed in the skin with ten minutes of exposure to the bright sun. Sufficient quantities of other fat-soluble vitamins including vitamin A are taken in our fresh vegetables. Supplementing these vitamin requirements by taking fish liver oils may be a waste. Also too much of Vitamin A and D intake may turn toxic in the liver.

On the other hand for our growing children, vitamin A and D are essential for optimal growth, for healthy bone formation, for proper development of the brain and nervous system, and also sexual development.  It has been noted in America, as the consumption of butter has been reduced, sterility rates and problems with sexual development have increased.

It has been discovered that raw animal fat, including butter, contains an “anti-stiffness” factor. This was discovered by Researcher Rosalind Wulzen, and is referred to as the “Wulzen Factor”. This substance protects humans and animals from calcification of the joints in arthritis.

It has been observed that saturated fat in butter has a powerful activator named Activator X, a catalyst that helps the body absorb and utilize minerals. This factor is found in cattle grazing fresh grass, and some sea- food. Butter should be considered good for your health when the source milk is obtained from cows eating rapidly growing grass in the spring and rainy seasons. So, after-all, when New-Zealanders boasts about their ‘Golden Butter’, we need to take them seriously.

Mother’s milk is high in cholesterol. After all, cholesterol is not that bad for you, when your mother has fed you lots of it in her natural milk. Lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid, found in mother’s milk, coconut oil, and butter (not found in other animal fats) has anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-virus, and anti-protozoa properties. This highly protective lauric acid is only formed in the mammary glands of cows and humans, other than in tropical fruits like the coconut.

Omega 6 and Omega 3 essential fatty acids found in abundance in fish body oils are also found in butter in small quantities. Unlike some fish oils, both Omega 3 and 6 are found balanced in equal parts in butter, as required for normal health.

Trace elements of manganese, zinc, chromium and iodine are incorporated into when butter is manufactured. Butter is also rich in selenium, a trace mineral with antioxidant properties.

Butter being a saturated fat does not breakdown into trans-fat (discuss later) when heated, unlike margarine. Hence, butter is better and healthier cooking oil.

Read the label on the tub of margarine next time, before you put it into your trolley at the supermarket. The label may state “ cholesterol free and made with vegetable oils”. This information hides the truth. Yes, it has no cholesterol, but the bad cholesterol from trans-fat in margarine is formed in the liver. Margarine is made from vegetable oils, mainly polyunsaturated oils such as Safflower, Corn, Sunflower, Soybean, cottonseed, Peanut and Sesame. In New Zealand the margarine is made from imported vegetable oils, mentioned above. The oils are refined to remove the impurities before being hydrogenated. This process artificially saturates and hardens the oil, making them more suitable for food processing.

As mentioned in my previous article on the subject, ”Are polyunsaturated fats good for you?” (Island Sunday 24 Nov), these vegetable oils go through at least ten processes, including hydrogenation, before solid margarine is manufactured. The oil is hydrogenated by mixing it with fine particles of nickel (a catalyst, with proven carcinogenic properties) heating it to over 180 degrees Celsius, and pumping hydrogen gas through it under pressure. This hardened fat is mixed with other oils to form a product with the desired texture. Thus the unstable polyunsaturated oils by going through these processes become stable, and the bi-product margarine, does not become rancid.

Table margarine contains less saturated fats and the bulk is composed of polyunsaturated fats, obtained from hot pressed vegetable seeds

This was good news for the margarine makers- until recently when a number of studies cast doubt over the health benefits of margarine.

Unsaturated fats reduce bad cholesterol (LDL), in the blood, unlike saturated fats, but trans-fats are polyunsaturated fats transformed into solid fat, as found in margarine. These man made fats are considered more saturated than the naturally occurring saturated animal fats. Recently, it has been noted that man made transfats, cause increase of bad cholesterol in the blood and are responsible for high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. Trans-fats also lower the good cholesterol in the blood, and adversely affect platelet function, consequently leading to heart attacks and strokes.

How do we watch out for trans-fats? First we need to know where trans-fats come from. According to US figures, foods made with hardened vegetable-origin fats are high in trans fatty acids. Margarine is only one source. Trans-fats are used in many processed foods, and baked goods. These foods include crackers, chips, muesli bars, confectionary bars, biscuits, peanut butter, Chinese rolls, and many others baked and fried foods. Beware of the many mushroom pastry shops that have come up in towns, and suburbs. Especially, in the suburbs these pastry shops are opened in the neighbourhood of boys and girls schools. These students dart straight to these shops immediately after school to have their ‘lunch snack’ before reaching home. In more western countries it is compulsory for children take, home made lunch packets, consisting mainly a sandwich or two, with a fruit like an apple. In our country, we are going to produce a future generation more prone to heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, with obesity added on.

Beware of those foods in the well-opened large freezing boxes in the supermarkets. Most preserved and processed foods use trans-fats in the preparations. The way to find trans-fats is to look at the ingredient list and look for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated”. Currently there is little published information on the levels of trans fatty acids in our country. In November 1999, the FDA proposed that food manufacturers list trans-fats on the label.

We do not have much of a variety of margarines in our food stores. In western countries, one could buy softer margarines, which are less hydrogenated- meaning fewer grams of trans-fats. Liquid squeeze bottle margarine is better than harder margarines. Some manufacturers are now producing margarine spreads that have no trans-fats, made with yogurt.

You will also find margarines made from olive oil. Olive oil is the best cooking oil. It is a monounsaturated fat. You can repeatedly heat this oil with no formation of free radicals. This means that each time you temper food with this oil, you could preserve and use the oil over and over again. It is advisable to use extra virgin olive oil, because it is cold- pressed, not mass-produced, with less impurities, finer purified oil, and it’s a cottage product.

The health properties of Olive Oil are well known. If you read the labels carefully, only a small amount of olive oil is incorporated in olive-oil margarine, the rest is polyunsaturated trans- fats.

Our coconut comes second to olive oil for cooking food. Our ancestors have used it for centuries. It is a saturated fat, and does not become rancid at room temperature, and could be used as cooking oil having same good qualities as olive oil. Today, in the Philippines, an American couple has started a cottage industry, using local labour, producing virgin coconut oil. They are bottled and sent to America, and is a most popular cooking oil, today. Americans are now again using coconut oil in a major way in the oil and food industry, giving better competition to Corn and Soy oil manufacturers.

It was reported on BBC news 19 July 2001, that margarine may increase asthma risk. The report said, “ A diet in polyunsaturated fats- found in many margarines and vegetable oils – may double a child’s chances of having asthma, according to researchers”. The link emerged from a comprehensive study of asthma risk factors in pre-school children between three and five in Australia.

Extract from Nexus Magazine, Australia Volume 4, #2 (Feb-March 1997 states- “To maintain good health it is important that we have the correct intake of omega fatty acids in our diets.

Hydrogenated fats like margarine are non-foods with toxic effects and should be avoided at any cost”.

References: The Truth About Saturated Fat, by Dr Joseph Mercola, 8/24/02.