Q: Dr. Scott, is it safe for our family to use margarine instead of butter?
A: One of the most prevalent nutritional myths of our time is that margarine is superior to butter as a source of fat.
Liquid oils are artificially hydrogenated in the manufacturing process, which produces a “hard fat” that is partially saturated. The molecular structure of the oils is changed in the manufacturing process, creating a more stable molecule. Unfortunately these “stable” molecules — called “trans fats” — have been shown to be involved in many health problems. Trans fats are fats that have been altered or damaged by high heat. These are a man-made type of fat not found anywhere else in the natural world.
Essential fatty acids (EFA) are components of larger fat molecules. These molecules are essential for the production of hormones and cell membrane components. Essential fatty acids are not produced by the body and must be supplied by fats in your diet. EFAs are found in many foods, but they are most richly concentrated in the oils of certain nuts, seeds, and fish. Nuts, seeds, and beans aren’t important items in the diets of most Americans. Partly because of this, and partly because we eat much less fish than we used to – and over process most of what we do eat – one whole group of EFAs has been virtually eliminated from our diets.
Another major function of EFA is the formation of prostaglandins, which are short-lived hormones that function at the tissue level. These prostaglandins control local tissue effects such as the inflammatory reaction, platelet aggregation (involved in blood clots), response to hormones, and tumor growth.
EFA found in natural vegetable oils lower serum cholesterol and decrease blood pressure. People whose diets are high in olive oil have a much lower incidence of coronary artery disease than do people eating the typical American diet. Olive oil has been a human staple for 5,000 years! Artificially hydrogenated oils (“trans fats” like margarine, shortenings, and spread blends) supply less EFA than meats and dairy products, and contain more saturated fats than butter, whole milk, and meat. They contain few, if any, of the nutrients necessary to metabolize these fats.
The dietary need for EFA increases with increased intake of hydrogenated fats. The “trans” fatty acids found in hydrogenated fats actually elevate serum cholesterol. These trans fats are absorbed by the body, but are not used as readily in cellular metabolism. When these foreign fats are metabolized, they may actually impair cellular function. Their presence in heart and smooth muscle may be a factor in cardiovascular disease. These foreign fats are incorporated into the cell membrane, altering the cell membrane structure and making the membrane more susceptible to damage. Peskin warns that “Trans-unsaturated fat, as the man-made stuff is called, is 14 times more potent as a disease risk factor than the saturated fats the public has been warned about for years – the kind in marbled beef, butter, and cheese” (Peskin, 1999).
The Hydrogenated Oil Menace
Hydrogenated oils should be eliminated from your diet because they are stressful to your liver and to your red blood cells. The free radicals in hydrogenated oils can cause damage to the red cell membranes and leave the cells susceptible to invasion by toxic substances
You should read labels to detect hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil. It is not something that you will find by itself in a bottle; it will be listed as one of several ingredients. Some of the most common sources are:
- margarine of all kinds, even from the health food store
- salad dressing
- ice cream desserts
- any dry-packaged foods, especially treats
- corn and potato chips
Besides all of these problems with margarines and hydrogenated oils, studies have shown that margarine actually coats the stomach wall, rendering foods indigestible.
Atherosclerosis begins with damage to the cell membrane, and thus the lining of the blood vessel walls. The normal use and metabolism of cholesterol does not cause atherosclerosis. Many factors damage the cell membrane, among these are the intake of artificially hydrogenated fats like margarine. Cholesterol is a factor in atherosclerosis simply because it becomes incorporated into the fibrous scar tissue that forms over the damaged tissue lining. Natural cholesterol mobilizers are found primarily in naturally occurring vegetable oils and butter.
Additionally, the mitochondria of the heart muscle contain high concentrations of essential fatty acids, the composition of which mirrors that of the diet. You are what you eat – and if you eat fake phoods and fats – your body reflects this. The mitochondria are the “power houses” of the cells in which ATP is produced – our “energy currency.” A diet high in “trans” fatty acids alters the lipid (fat) composition and interferes with oxygen uptake and the production of ATP, i.e. you lose your endurance and your energy using margarine.
To put it simply, artificially hydrogenated fats such as margarine and shortening are a health menace. Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils are found in practically every processed fake phood product on the market. Avoid these in your diet, and use unprocessed vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, and olive oil. Use butter and not margarine!