New Findings Quash Theory That Margarine is Better than Butter

The public debate about whether butter or margarine is healthier may soon be over.  I, of course, had made my mind up on this issue many years ago and have always advised my patients to choose butter and avoid margarine.  To some this seemed a bit radical when the mainstream advice has promoted cardiovascular health benefits from lowering saturated fats and increasing polyunsaturated vegetable fats for the past 30-40 years.

So I was very pleased to read this week that previous research promoting polyunsaturated vegetable fats such as margarine as a healthier alternative to butter was quashed by some leading American scientists. The new findings were published in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) and showed that eating margarine instead of butter can double the risk of heart disease.  Margarine contains polyunsaturated fats that can promote inflammation that in turn can damage artery walls and lead to atherosclerosis.

The researchers analysed a previous Australian study conducted in1966 and 1973, because it was the only controlled study that had focused on one polyunsaturated fat, omega 6. The original study examined 458 men aged 30 to 59 who had previously suffered from a heart attack.Half of the men in the study were given no dietary advice, while the other half were advised to swap from butter and to increase their polyunsaturated fat intake by 15 per cent of their total energy consumption over a three year period.  However while cholesterol levels went down in the control group, the actual death rate went up.  The re-examined findings found that substituting dietary linoleic acid in place of saturated fats actually increased the rates of death from all causes, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. So it is not much good having lower cholesterol if you are going to die sooner!  It appears that the original researchers did not want to ‘see’ this important point that went against the hypothesis that saturated fat was the cause of heart disease, so it was conveniently not disclosed.  The recent re-examined findings clearly offer important implications for worldwide dietary advice to substitute omega 6 linoleic acid, or polyunsaturated fats in general, for saturated fats.

Margarine is a highly processed product that starts out as a liquid vegetable oil and ends up as a creamy spread.  The chemical processes required to achieve this changes its shape and denatures the fat (including creating trans-fats).  The end result is unnatural and quite foreign to the body and promotes inflammation.  Moreover, the product must be deodorized, bleached and coloured to make it palatable to the eye and the taste buds.  On the other hand we have butter, that is simply formed from churning cream and maybe has a little salt added.   You could make this at home! Butter is a predominantly saturated fat that is stable (to heat and light) and easily recognized and processed by the body.  Oh and did I mention that it tastes better!

Be sure to choose organic butter wherever possible to eliminate potential residue from antibiotics and chemicals that might end up in the cream of cows from commercial dairies.  Butter should also be naturally golden yellow when sourced from free-range cows, showing that it is rich in carotenoids and it will even contain some omega 3 fats from the grass. Pale butter comes from grain fed cows and should be avoided.

The whole debate is kind of more ironic when we now know that butter is also a rich source of conjugated linolenic acid (CLA), also known as rumenic acid. CLA has been shown to improve cholesterol profiles associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease but also has potent anticancer actions.  Given the incidence of heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes has continued to climb over the past few decades despite the low-fat nutrition advice – it is time that we re-think the hypothesis, stop demonizing saturated fats and start some decent research into the real causes of these conditions.




BMJ article