Butter vs Margarine

by Heena Modi on January 17, 2013

The rumours you may have heard saying “margarine is plastic, so eat butter” are not true at all!
I’ve had that particular email so many times that I asked my friend Sagar to share some points about the difference between the two, which are accurate, rather than, fear mongering myths.

1) Margarine is a spreadable water/liquid in oil emulsion, just like butter.
Butter is made by churning milk or cream which has been derived from an animal.
Margarine is made by blending oils (generally, but not necessarily vegetables oils) with other liquids such as water (but often also skimmed milk).

2) The notion that margarine is plastic is fallacious and misguided. There was a point in time when some spreads sold as margarines were typically made by passing hydrogen through oil in the presence of a nickel catalyst (called hydrogenation). If, as was the norm, the hydrogenation process was not fully completed, the resulting spreads contained “trans fats”, which were found to have negative health consequences (in particular, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease). As a result of these health risks and the media news, the use of partially hydrogenated fats diminished significantly.
Today, no brand of spreads sold in the UK contain any partially hydrogenated oils, and levels of trans fatty acids (TFAs) are generally lower than 1%.
This is lower than TFA levels in most animal derived foods (butter, milk, beef) where levels may range somewhere from 3 to 6%.
Notwithstanding the fact that hydrogenation is not plasticisation, in the UK at least, consumers purchasing margarine no longer need to worry about trans fats in their spread.

Anyone who spreads rumours suggesting margarines are like plastic has not done their research.

3) Butter has an image as being “more natural” than margarine.
Personally, I don’t think there is anything natural about artificially inseminating a cow to make her pregnant, injecting her with hormones, killing her calves and then stealing the milk which her body produced to feed and nature her babies. From an ethical perspective, spreads made from plant based liquids are clearly more desirable.

4) That said, almost all margarines sold in shops today are made from palm oil. While some producers are transparent about the fact they use palm oil, (and some even are proud to demonstrate the fact that the palm oil they use is certified by the RSPO) – most producers do not, they disguise the palm oil as “vegetable oil” or “vegetable fat”.
Unfortunately, the production of palm oil has very destructive consequences for primary rainforest, most notably in Indonesia and Malaysia.

5) While my personal view is that palm-oil based spreads are probably the lesser of two evils, the best choice from an ethical/ahimsa perspective would be actually to avoid butter and palm-based margarines altogether.
If we need a fat with the properties of being solid at room temperature but to be spreadable and liquefy when heated we can use organic/ethically sourced cocoa butter or coconut butter. But the reason why we would use these fats is for taste/pleasure and not for necessity.
Our bodies would be able to function fine without these sources of fat (anyone who says that butter/ghee is necessary for health has not done their research).
Saturated and monounsaturated fats are widely recognised not to be necessary in the diet as they can be made by the human body.
There are two types of polyunsaturated fats which humans do need to obtain from the diet as our bodies cannot make them (fats belonging to the omega 3 and omega 6 families), but it is possible to get an adequate supply from solid plant-based foods and oils (linseed/flaxseed, rapeseed and hempseeds are particularly good sources of omega 3).

So what’s  the verdict? Is butter better?

Please do share any thoughts/comments on Google+, Twitter, Facebook or via email. :)

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