Margarine seems like a healthy choice over butter because it has no cholesterol and is higher in what are known as healthier fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Because margarine is made from vegetable oils and not animal products, it is considered devoid of the saturated fats that lead to heart attacks, arteriosclerosis, strokes, and excessive weight gain. However, a closer look reveals that not all margarines are good for your health.
Margarine and Trans-Fatty Acids
The healthier fats in margarine reduce bad cholesterol or low-density lipoprotein (LDL). However, margarine contains hydrogenated polyunsaturated vegetable oils. According to Paul Pitchford, the author of “Healing with Whole Foods,” hydrogenation is a process that leads to “immune-damaging synthetic fat.” This is a trans-fatty acid that elevates blood cholesterol. Many brands of margarine that are made from safflower oils and soy are advertised as “natural” but may be hydrogenated and unhealthy.
Research shows that if you consume large quantities of polyunsaturated vegetable oils, especially in the form of margarine, you have a higher risk of heart attack and cancer. In studies with animals, consuming these oils leads to more rapid development of cancer than is the case with eating saturated fats. This type of information is disappointing if you have chosen margarine precisely because it has been advertised to be superior to butter, when in fact, you may have been better off eating small amounts of butter instead.
If you are opposed to using butter, healthier brands of margarine do exist that use gelatin or lecithin as emulsifying agents. They are superior to hydrogenated margarines. They can often be found in supermarkets or in health food stores. In general, when choosing margarine, experts recommend checking the ingredients to be sure that they do not contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
Be sure to also check the grams of trans-fatty acids and saturated fat. You will want products that contain the lowest amounts of these ingredients. In general, margarine that comes in a tub has less trans-fat than those packaged in a stick. The less solid margarine contains less trans-fat.
Alternatives to margarine include whipped or light butter. Products also exist that combine butter with canola oil or olive oil. These options tend to have fewer calories and less fat than ordinary butter.
Pitchford recommends clarified butter, also known as ghee, which is a form of butter with removed milk solids. According to Ayurvedic medicine, this type of butter enhances the body’s tissues and brings balance to the hormones. It also helps to heal injuries and reduces inflammation.
To conclude, margarine is not necessarily better for you than butter. It depends on the particular brand, its ingredients and the process by which it was made. You will want to avoid the trans-fatty acids and hydrogenated oils in margarine as much as possible. Alternative forms of butter may be a better option for some people, such as light or clarified butter.