Monday, September 21, 2009

Butter vs. Margarine – What’s the Truth?

This past week I gave several nutrition talks about the foods you should include in a healthy diet. I was astounded by the looks I received from quite a few people when I stated that butter is good for you and margarine is not. I also noticed that most of the folks who gave me that look were in their 50’s and 60’s, precisely the group of people who have been pounded with the message that margarine is good for you. In this article I hope to set the record straight and explain why butter is good for you and why margarine is bad for you.

Why butter is good for you:

The proponents (and manufacturers) of margarine have spread the word that butter is a saturated fat and saturated fat causes heart disease. I don’t have the space here to get into the details, but let me say this – there are many doctors, nutritionists, and scientists who do not believe this, including myself. If you want to learn how this theory became the accepted norm despite those who do not agree I’d encourage you to read Gary Taubes’ Good Calories Bad Calories, Dr. Uffe Ravnskov’s The Cholesterol Myths, or visit the Weston Price Foundation web site

That being said, there is a general consensus that we need some saturated fat in our diet. Butter is a healthy saturated fat, particularly when it is organic, and even better when it comes from a grass fed cow. It is high in the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Without proper vitamins we can not utilize the minerals we ingest, no matter what level we eat. Vitamins A & D are essential for growth, healthy bones, proper development of the brain and nervous systems, and for normal sexual development. Vitamin E is an antioxidant and vitamin K is important for bone building and blood clotting.

Butter also has CLA (conjugated linolenic acid) that helps fight weight gain and butyric acid which is anti-viral and anti-cancer. For those with an allergy to the dairy protein casein, ghee (clarified butter) is an equally healthy option.

Why margarine is bad for you:

What may get lost in the discussion of whether or not butter is good for you, is the fact that margarine is definitely harmful to you. The bottom line is that margarine is made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. That means trans-fats. One fact that everyone who talks about nutrition agrees on is that trans fats cause cancer. (The other fact is that sugar is bad for you.)

A major problem we run into is that food labeling, particularly trans fat labeling is very deceiving. Basically, food manufacturers abuse the FDA labeling rules. According to FDA guidelines if products have less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving it can be labeled as zero grams of trans fat. The typical serving size is one tablespoon – that’s not all that much. One manufacturer, Smart Balance, has created an advertisement to show it has the least amount of trans fats compared to other brands. They conclude that of all the leading brands theirs stands out as it is “the closest to zero grams trans fat nature allows.” Quite the statement. They admit there is trans fat; trans fat causes cancer; but hey, it is as close as we can come. Sounds like a cigarette company telling us to smoke just one cigarette each day, because that is as close to zero as you could come!

Another basic problem with margarine is that it is made from a variety of vegetable oils which are polyunsaturated fatty acids. When exposed to heat and oxygen – both during manufacturing and later in cooking at high temperature – “free radicals” are created. These are the villains that damage our cells and tissues causing cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Our body knows the truth:

A summary of the biological facts concerning saturated fats and trans fats: saturated fats are essential for healthy cell membrane function, trans fats interfere with it; saturated fats enhance hormone production, trans fats interfere with it; saturated fats suppress inflammation, trans fats encourage inflammation; saturated fats raise “good” cholesterol, trans fats lower “good” cholesterol; saturated fats help insulin receptors, trans fats inhibit them; saturated fats enhance the immune system, trans fats depress it. So as you can see, from a biological perspective we need saturated fats and not trans fats.

Bernard Rosen, PhD is a Nutrition Consultant and Educator. He works with individuals, groups, and at corporations to create individualized nutrition and wellness programs. His office is in Thiensville. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, e-mail at, call (262) 389-9907 or go to