As the holidays approach and cooking activity intensifies, the choice between margarine and butter will be made with increasing regularity, but unfortunately there is still no clear answer to the dilemma.
Interestingly enough, this topic has caused controversy for more than 100 years. Margarine, or “oleomargarine” as it was first known, was actually created in 1869 by a French chemist who used rendered beef fat.
Butter became so scarce in the 1800s that Emperor Louis Napoleon III offered a contest to find an inexpensive alternative, intended mainly for the military troops and the peasant class.
In 1874 the product was introduced to the United States, where skimmed milk was mixed with processed animal fat, then colored with yellow dye. This oleomargarine looked similar to butter but was cheaper to produce.
By the 1880s, the American dairy industry, threatened by cheap competition, successfully lobbied in many states to regulate the production and sale of oleomargarine or to place taxes on the product. Some states banned its sale entirely; others banned the addition of yellow dye — making the product less visually appealing. New Hampshire required the addition of pink dye to further discourage consumption.
World War II caused shortages of dairy products in America and margarine, which was then being made with vegetable oils instead of animal fats, gained in popularity. The 1948 election campaign focused on the repeal of taxes on margarine, and President Harry Truman signed a bill in 1950 that eliminated many of the restrictions on the product’s manufacture and sale.
The controversy has more to do with health than with social standing, market competition or shortages, yet a clear endorsement of one over the other is not forthcoming. Butter as a “natural” product contains more saturated fat and cholesterol, both known to increase blood cholesterol. HDL or “good” cholesterol protects against heart disease while LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, circulates through the blood and can build up on the artery walls that feed the heart and brain.
Margarine — made by a process of “hardening” oils through hydrogenation — contains trans-fatty acids (or trans fats) that can raise the “bad” cholesterol and may contribute to other health problems. In fact, a leading research team at Harvard University asserted, “If artificially produced trans fats were removed from the American diet, up to 228,000 heart attacks could be prevented each year.”
Other than fat and calories, margarine has little or no nutritional value. The New York Times notes, “Gram for gram, trans fats … are more hazardous to the heart than the saturated fats that damage arteries.”
In general, solid stick margarine has more trans fat than “tub” or liquid margarine. A few newer spreads on the market — Smart Balance, Benecol, etc. — have no trans fats and may prove a viable alternative. As with any other food choices, it is up to consumers to read the labels on these products.
Future studies may provide clearer information about the relative risks of eating butter or margarine, but for now researchers seem to agree that limiting consumption of both is the best course for maintaining optimum health.