The facts about why margarine is worse for us than butter

Take a straw poll in the street on whether margarine or butter is better for your health, and I bet the vast majority of people would opt for margarine every time. One of margarine’s supposed virtues is that it can help reduce cholesterol levels in the bloodstream, and thereby afford some protection from ‘cardiovascular’ conditions such as heart disease and stroke.

Research published in October’s edition of the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology has been used to further support the use of margarine in cholesterol reduction and health. In this study, individuals eating margarine enriched with plant substances known as stanols or sterols (these have the capacity to reduce blood cholesterol levels by blocking its absorption in the gut) were found to have lower levels of cholesterol compared to those not eating such margarines. The lead author of this study described the effect of stanol and sterol enriched margarine as modest, but added that: it can still reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and thereby result in health benefits in the general population.

However, before we all rush to the supermarket to stock-up on a stanol or sterol-enriched margarine (such as Benecol or Flora Pro-Activ), I suggest we take a closer look at this particular piece of ‘science’, and also put it in the context of other available evidence which has examined the link between cholesterol levels, margarine-eating and health.

First of all, while the Food and Chemical Toxicology study found those eating margarine had lower cholesterol levels, we do not know whether this was due to the eating of margarine per se. Individuals who eat margarines specially designed for cholesterol reduction may well be doing other things to reduce cholesterol levels (for instance, they may increase their consumption of other cholesterol-reducing foods such as yoghurt, oats and nuts). Because these factors were not taken into consideration in the study, we really have no way of telling whether or not the apparent lower levels of cholesterol were due to the eating of enriched margarine.

Also, can we assume that the cholesterol reduction associated with the eating of specialised margarine necessarily translates into significant benefits for health? What evidence is there, for instance, that taking dietary steps to reduce cholesterol saves lives? Many studies have looked at this, and 17 of these were assessed in a study published in 2005 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Overall, the studies led to an average 10 per cent decrease in cholesterol levels, but there was NO DECREASE IN OVERALL RISK OF DEATH. This sort of evidence casts serious doubt over the supposed ‘benefits’ of cholesterol reduction. Interestingly, the recent study in Food and Chemical Toxicology found that only just over a quarter of those eating an enriched margarine enjoyed a 10 per cent of more reduction in cholesterol.

Even if cholesterol reduction through dietary means had been proven to be beneficial to health (which it hasn’t), does that mean that something that reduces cholesterol is automatically healthy? I mean, if arsenic and cyanide were shown to have cholesterol-reducing properties, would it make sense for us to be consuming these substances every day?

The point here is that while food manufacturers (or drug companies) can bang on about the effect of their products on cholesterol, the really important thing is the effect on HEALTH. With this in mind, what studies exists which have pitted margarine against, say, butter, in terms of their effect on health? To know for sure whether margarine really is healthier than butter, we would need to have the results from what are known as double-blind placebo controlled trials (trials in which individuals are given butter or margarine to eat, though neither they nor the researchers are allowed to know which. After some time, the researchers would then assess which group, if any, had the better health outcome). Unfortunately, no such studies have been published. There is, however, one study in the scientific literature published in the journal Epidemiology exists which examined the risk of heart disease and margarine eating in men. In the long term, for each teaspoon of margarine consumed each day, risk of heart disease was up (yes, UP) by 10 per cent.

A major tenet of my advice regarding nutrition is that a healthy diet is one which is, as far as possible, made natural, unprocessed foods (preferably those that we have been eating a very long time in terms of our evolution). Margarine is made from chemically processed vegetables oils which have generally been bleached, coloured, deodorised and flavoured to make them ‘edible’. Does that sound like a food you want to be putting in your mouth every day? The recent Food and Chemical Toxicology study seems to be nothing more than the usual pro-margarine propaganda. My advice: DON’T SWALLOW IT.

References:

1. Marion W, et al. Effectiveness of customary use of phytosterol/stanol enriched margarines on blood cholesterol lowering Food and Chemical Toxicology 2006 44:10; 1682-1688

2. Studer M, et al. Effects of different antilipidemic agents and diets on mortality – a systematic review. Archives of Internal Medicine 2005 165: 725-730

3. Gillman MW, et al. Margarine intake and subsequent coronary heart disease in men. Epidemiology. 1997 8(2):144-149

15 Responses to The facts about why margarine is worse for us than butter

  1. R. sherlock 19 March 2007 at 10:53 pm #

    how can flora advertise the benefits of thier products on your health when you have stated that there are none?

    thank you for your time

  2. Dr John Briffa 20 March 2007 at 6:33 am #

    That question needs to be put to the manufacturers not to me. Should you ask and get a reply, please do forward it to me for comment.
    John

  3. Shel 16 April 2008 at 9:37 am #

    Hi! Really interesting read. I do have proper butter and although I am on a diet I do limit the amount I have and tend to not use it unless on things like sandwiches. When I tell friends and collegues about this they literally cross themselves and tell me that butter is the devil and they use marge. I use it cos according to my Mum Margerine is something like 1 molecule away from plastic. I dont know if this is true but it has put me off for life! BUTTER RULES!

  4. Nick 16 October 2008 at 7:03 pm #

    You say that margarine is not healthy, but have avoided the question you posed at the begining of the article, i.e. is margarine better for your health than butter? Even if margarine is very very bad for you indeed, which I doubt, it doesn’t mean that butter is any better. Butter contains a high proportion of saturated fat, proven through inummerable studies to raise blood pressure, cause heart disease and clog arteries. No matter how debateable the cholesterol reducing properties of margarine, there is no doubt that butter is bad for your health.

  5. Dr John Briffa 16 October 2008 at 8:12 pm #

    Nick
    Can we see some of those “inummerable studies” please?

  6. Dan 22 October 2009 at 2:59 am #

    I think that Nick’s comment compounds the general publics fear that saturated fat is bad for you.
    Saturated fat is an essential part of our diets. The heart uses it as it’s only energy source and yes, while an excess of anything is bad for you, saturated fat itself keeps us alive.
    Therefore, by his reckoning, saturated fat is good or you.

  7. Mike 16 September 2010 at 9:48 pm #

    It’s a well known fact that butter is healthier than margarine.

  8. tom says 6 May 2011 at 4:34 pm #

    read judith decava the facts and fanticies of cholesterol you will find the truth of the biggest myth in the history of sicence

  9. Gary 25 December 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    My worry is……”a healthy diet is…..in terms of our evolution).” Well, we (in terms of evolution) have never lived longer!
    Give me butter any day. G.M.

  10. Kalyani 23 April 2012 at 6:26 pm #

    Do you know a friend of mine who is an phd in science told me all this years ago and to prove his point he took a tub of margarine and took the lid of and left it outside for over a month not only did it not mould but no animals touched it. Makes you think about the so called superior intelligence of man

  11. Simeon 22 August 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    There are tribes in Africa: The Masai, Samburu and Fulani, who consume roughly 5x the amount of saturated fat as the average american. The eat mainly meat, raw milk, and cows blood, yet they have extremely low body fat, and heart disease is almost non existant. Yet when introduce to a western diet, they fall in line with the stats on heart disease and obesity.

    That is one sure sign that something else in our processed diet other than food we have consumed for HUNDREDS of thousands of years is somehow to blame.

    Butter just isn’t that bad for you, nor saturated fat.

  12. Pamela 6 November 2012 at 12:50 am #

    Thank you Dr. John, for not letting the team down. My mother ate slabs of butter on her bread, lived to be 88, cholesterol through the roof. However, my father who had five heart attacks in all, ate margarine as he was instructed to do, and died of the fifth one, aged 71. He was a non-smoker and non-drinker, ate fish and salads and chicken, as he was told to lay off red meat. He went to WWII ( fought in New Guinea) and had a very unhappy married life that caused him untold misery and torture of mind every day of his life, worse than the war I think, in that it was sustained over his whole lifetime. For my money, heart attacks are caused by factors other than eating butter, emotional ones. Those on the receiving end of abuse may be the most vulnerable to heart attacks. Has anyone bothered to do any real research on this yet? The ancients had it right: the heart, not the brain, is the “emotional centre”, no doubt at all in my mind about that.

  13. Paul 26 January 2013 at 12:55 am #

    Few months ago I started doing Atkins, never been healthier and never lost so much weight, without being hungry all the time. Guess what I eat a lot: saturated fats. Thing is, there are a lot of companies that want to sell us their trash. Some day, it will stop, for now, I do whatever I can to wake up people out there.

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