What is margarine and why is it bad for you?3
“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”
Little did the advertisers of this 1970s commercial know how prophetic that was! After much debate we still want to know, “Is butter better?” “What is margarine?”
What is Margarine?
Margarine was created in the early 1800s as an inexpensive substitute for butter. Early margarines were made from animal fat. In the 1900s, chemists discovered how to harden liquid oils and vegetable oil replacing animal fat. What is margarine? It is a manufactured, vegetable-oil-based substitute for butter.
How is Margarine Made?
Margarine is manufactured through a multi-step process.
- Vegetable oils are extracted from corn, cottonseed, soybeans or safflower seeds. Hexane, an organic compound commonly used as a solvent, is used in the extraction process.
- The oil is steam cleaned to remove most impurities. Steaming also destroys vitamins and antioxidants.
- Hydrogen gas is bubbled through liquid oil in the presence of a catalyst (usually nickel). This forces unsaturated fatty acids to become saturated and solid. The more complete the hydrogenation process, the firmer the finished product. Margarine undergoes partial hydrogenation, to make it semi-solid.. Partial hydrogenation produces a lumpy grey grease and results in the formation of trans-fats.
- Emulsifiers are added to remove lumps; bleach to remove the grey color.
- A second steam cleaning removes chemical odors.
- Synthetic vitamins, artificial colors and a natural yellow color are added. The final product is packaged as a healthy alternative to butter.
What is Margarine’s Effect on the Body?
The health impacts of margarine are related to the types and proportion of fats it contains. These fats are divided into two categories: The fat composition of the vegetable oil and the unhealthy forms of fat created in the manufacturing process.
Vegetable Oil vs Healthy Dietary Fats
About 97% of the fat content in the human body is saturated and monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats, in equal proportions of Omega-3 and Omega -6, comprise the balance. These fats are used for rebuilding cells and hormone production.
Vegetable oils, on the other hand, have a high concentration of polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are very unstable when stored for long periods of time and exposed to light. A diet high in polyunsaturated fats, forces the body to incorporate these unstable fats into cell repair and new cell creation. This produces inflammation and cell mutation that can result in a variety of health problems. Vegetable oils also have a much higher ratio of Omega-6 to Omega 3 fats. This higher ratio has been shown to increase the risk of cancer and heart disease.
By-products of margarine manufacture
The vegetable oils are exposed to heat, chemicals, hydrogenation, bleaches, emulsifiers, and additives. Each step moves the finished product further away from the natural plant source and creates unwanted byproducts. Let’s look at the impact of these steps.
The extraction process creates free radicals. They are “free” because they freely float around until they latch onto another molecule. They are “radical” because there are a wide variety of molecules to which they can attach. As they attached to other molecules, they create more free radicals. This continued creation of free radicals is responsible for aging, cell damage, cancer and heart disease.
Partial hydrogenation changes liquid vegetable oil into a semi-solid form by forcing the oil to produce saturated fats. Partial hydrogenation produces trans-fats. Margarine is high in trans-fat.
Health effects caused by trans fatty acids are
- Increased risk of coronary heart disease;
- Increased levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and lowered levels of HDL (good cholesterol);
- Decreased fertility;
- Decreased immune response; and,
- Increased blood insulin levels and greater risk for diabetes.
Margarine and the bottom line
Margarine is a manufactured food product. It was developed at the request of an Emperor who wanted something cheap for his poor subjects and his armies. It was never designed to be healthy, nutritious or beneficial; it was designed to be an imitation, an inexpensive substitute.
Chemists fiddled with it to make it more palatable and pleasing to your senses. Later nutritionists touted its health benefits. But those benefits were based on the original plant sources. The chemical and manufacturing processes that put margarine multi-steps away from its origins were never taken into account. Unwittingly, by encouraging a switch to margarine, they also fiddled with your health at its basic cellular level.
The human body is a perfect machine that grows, develops, repairs, replaces and reproduces. Food provides the energy and essential nutrients needed for all of these processes. The higher the quality of the food you eat, the more perfect the results.
Thousands of years have shown us what is healthy; decades of genetic modification, manufacturing and processing are showing us what is not. The message we continue to hear, but oftentimes fail to heed is “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
Photo credit: KRAFT margarine 1950s by 1950s unlimited