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The Lake News Online
  • Nutrition tip of the week: Butter or margarine?

  • What’s your spread of choice and why? Do you base your choice on taste preference, health concerns, media reports or scientific facts? The butter vs. margarine controversy has been around for more than a 100 years. Let’s start with the history and work our way up to current recommendations.
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  • What’s your spread of choice and why? Do you base your choice on taste preference, health concerns, media reports or scientific facts? The butter vs. margarine controversy has been around for more than a 100 years. Let’s start with the history and work our way up to current recommendations.
    Butter, of course, has been simply made for centuries from the milk of various animals. In the 1800s, butter was in short supply in Europe, which made the cost prohibitive for the poor. At the 1866 World’s Fair, French Emperor Louis Napoleon III, offered a prize to whoever could make a cheap butter substitute. In 1869, a French food scientist, Mege-Mouries, won that prize with his development of oleomargarine from a mix of beef tallow, milk and salt. The word “margarine” was derived from a Greek word for pearl, since the mix was a pearly white. The taste was acceptable, the cost low and thus began the mass production of margarine.
    In 1873, margarine production began in the United States. Until 1933, most margarine was made from either cheap beef tallow or inexpensive imported coconut oil. Margarine was selling for 50 percent to 70 percent the price of butter. It takes about 11 quarts of milk to make a pound of butter, and butter fat was more expensive than the fats used to make margarine. Much of the milk produced at this time was purchased to make butter, and dairy farmers feared loss of income with the increased popularity of margarine.
    The dairy industry was not happy about the manufacture of this “imitation butter” and effectively lobbied to place regulations on margarine sales. In support of dairy farmers, some states actually were successful in banning the sale of margarine altogether. Missouri banned it in 1881. The Supreme Court decided in 1888 that no state could ban the sale of margarine, so state bans were lifted.
    The dairy industry then insisted that the naturally white margarine could not be artificially colored to resemble butter. At first, they wanted margarine to be colored an unappetizing pink or brown. But, they eventually agreed to a tax on any colored margarine. Margarine sales slowed with the increased price. To get around the tax, manufacturers began selling a packet of coloring separately and instructing the consumer to blend it into the white margarine at home. The tax on colored margarine was not lifted until 1947.
    Margarine sales began to increase during World War I, the Depression and World War II because of dairy shortages and the rationing of butter. Vitamins A and D were added to margarine in 1940 because of poor nutrition during the war.
    The process of hydrogenation, developed in 1934, allowed cheaper soy and cottonseed oils to be used to make margarine, so the price of margarine continued to decline. But, the hydrogenation process also created trans fats, which we later learned are harmful to our health. The more solid the margarine, the more trans fats it contains. In the 1950s, a host of artificial colors, flavorings, stabilizers, fillers, emulsifiers and antisplatter agents began being added to margarines.
    Page 2 of 2 - Then in 1956, the American Heart Association issued a statement for the first time recommending that Americans limit their intake of animal fats. Since then, margarine sales continued to increase and by 1980, margarine outsold butter 2 to 1. But rumors of trans fat and it’s detrimental effects on our health began surfacing. There have been known health concerns regarding trans fat for 40 years, but really no efforts by the government or manufacturers to reduce its use until around 2005, just before the new nutrition labeling requirement of 2006. In November of 2013, the FDA started the process to ban trans fat altogether. This will change how margarine can be manufactured in the future.
    For many, margarine symbolizes a cheap, processed, artificial and unhealthy food, and this is evident in the trend of reverting back to butter, which is considered to be natural. Butter and margarine have the same amount of calories; the difference is in the amount of saturated fat. Butter is about 50 percent saturated fat; margarine is about 20 percent. But, there are different types of saturated fat and many recent studies have shown that not all types of saturated fats are harmful. The type of saturated fat in butter does raise our LDL, or bad cholesterol. But it also raises our HDL, or good cholesterol, proportionately.
    If you do an Internet search, you can find hundreds of pros and cons of both margarine and butter and much misinformation. The American Heart Association recommends margarines over butter. My philosophy is to use less of whichever one you choose and substitute with oils, like olive or canola, whenever possible. If you choose margarine, pick one with the least amount of saturated fat and no trans fat. This means it will be a soft or liquid margarine. If you choose butter, consider buying whipped butter or a soft butter blended with olive or canola oil to lower the amount of saturated fat.
     
    Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.

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