The margarine myth

Lighter, Brighter You Blog: The Margarine Myth

A half-truth is a whole lie

In 1903, the process of heating plant-based oils and turning them into solid fats was patented, when a German chemist named Wilhelm Normann, boiled cottonseed oil at temperatures of more than 260 °C (or 500 °F), and watched it solidify.

Winning awards for causing death in the future?

This was a great improvement in the process of making candles from animal-based tallow, as vegetable oils could now be used. Although Normann received many awards for his contributions to processing fats and oils for various applications, it wasn’t known then that his creativity would lead to another discovery, called partial hydrogenation, which would cause incalculable harm to humans' health.

The first margarine didn't contain trans fats

In 1911 Procter and Gamble also used this process with cottonseed oil. They produced the first commercial shortening, or margarine, then marketed as a spread for bread and as a useful product to use in baking, instead of butter. Its advantages were that it stayed solid at room temperature, and products stayed "fresh" for longer, as the fats didn't turn rancid as quickly as fresh fats and oils.

But it was a very hard substance and didn't have the spreadable quality that we have come to associate with margarines.

Fully hydrogenated oils do not contain any trans fats, although they may contain other damaged fat molecules, due to processing damage.

Progress led to further damage

As processing techniques became more sophisticated, the discovery of a way to produce partially hydrogenated fats led to the introduction of trans fatty acids through processing.

This process produced a more "spreadable" product. Unfortunately, apart from producing a product that was damaged at the molecular level, the product also contains residues from toxic metals, such as aluminum and nickel. These are used in the hydrogenation process, when the liquid oil is bombarded with hydrogen atoms in the presence of these heavy metals, which are used as catalysts.

Polyunsaturated oils are very healthy, but …

The truly interesting part of this story of so-called "food processing" progress, is that consumers were always told that these products were very healthy, as they were made up of vegetable oils, such as sunflower, safflower, soya or corn oils, which are essential fats, from the omega-6 family of polyunsaturated fats.

So, the campaigns used to convince people about the benefits of these products, always mention that they are polyunsaturated fats, or oils, which are healthy for us. At least this part of the story was, and is true.

And panic about heart disease helped the margarine manufacturers …

As the panic about heart disease increased, and saturated animal fats were seen to be the enemy, these vegetable oils were seen as being a true blessing. Manufacturers had, however, left out a very important part of the story.

As the saying goes, God is in the details

These polyunsaturated oils do not like to be exposed to light, heat and oxygen, and when they are, they become damaged. Partial hydrogenation also damages them, producing trans fats, which are damaged fat molecules.

These damaged molecules do great harm in the body and brain, because they can't do the job that undamaged, natural fat molecules should be doing. So cell membranes cannot behave as they should, and their ability to be permeable, malleable, flexible and elastic is hampered.

Every single cell cares about fat!

Each cell is affected by the incorporation of these damaged molecules of fat, so each cell is unable to be optimally healthy. In fact, each tablespoon of damaged fat contains 100 million damaged molecules of fat for each of your cells, which means that most people have innumerable quantities of these trans fats in their cell membranes.

The whole truth about partial hydrogenation and processing damaging is still being uncovered today

The whole fallout of this food-processing catastrophe is still being discovered today, with many people still being unaware of the damage being caused to their bodies and brains by these damaged "plastic" spreads.

The involvement of technology in food manufacturing seldom leads to improved health, especially when it's based on a lack of knowledge about what the body requires for long-term health.

So, what to do now?

Go back to using organic butter, avoid all vegetable spreads, and remember that your food choices – including fats and oils – should be as close to nature as possible.

Be very fussy about whom you buy your oils from – shelf-stable oils are toxic too!

Only use organic, unrefined, low-heat and low-oxygen exposed essential fatty acids, that are stored in the refrigerator in nitrogen-flushed, dark glass bottles.

References

De Roos NM, et al. Replacement of dietary saturated fatty acids by trans fatty acids lowers serum HDL cholesterol and impairs endothelial function in healthy men and women. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol 2001 Jul; 21(7): 1233-7.

Erasmus U. Fats that heal, fats that kill. Burnaby BC, Canada: Alive Books;1993.

Gillman MW, et al. Margarine intake and subsequent coronary heart disease in men. Epidemiology 1997 Mar; 8(2): 144-9.

Kummerow FA. The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them. Atherosclerosis 2009 Aug; 205(2): 458-65.

Mozaffarian D, et al. Trans Fatty acids and Cardiovascular Disease. New Eng J of Medicine 2006; 354: 1601-1613.