It appears that there is no scientific evidence that margarine is healthier than butter. In fact, evidence suggests the exact opposite is true. This is summed up first of all in one of my earlier articles that showed saturated fat is not the demon it is made out to be and may even be associated with reduced heart attack. Another myth shattered!. (See 'Saturated Fats: Truth and Lies' NOVA November 2012)
At least that is what the biggest and best studies show. Furthermore, we consume many more Omega 6 (vegetable) oils today than our ancestors did and this is having a negative impact on our health. These oils are not just in our margarine but also hidden in most of our food. We ate margarine for 50 years thinking it was made up of so called 'good fats' only to find out it was laden with the deadliest form of fat, trans fats. Finally, there is emerging evidence that margarine may not be good for our health, with or without trans fats, and is nowhere near a natural food; the push to sell more margarine has come from organisations like the Heart Foundations around the world and branches of margarine companies with strong vested interests in promoting margarine sales.
I think one of the best things to have happened to the Australian cuisine is MasterChef. It has inspired a whole generation to go back to the kitchen and start cooking again. It has also encouraged the increased use of butter over vegetable oils, something the Heart Foundation and the margarine manufacturers did not like so they had to come up with campaigns to sway people back to margarine. Interestingly, one of the foundation's ploys was to create, through a public relations company, a group called 'Mums United' which pretends to be a grassroots mothers campaign against evil butter. According to David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison and the 'duck test' of inductive reasoning, "It walks like a margarine advertisement and quacks like a margarine advertisement, so guess what I think it is?" And the margarine companies fund it! Some of the group's tactics have included offering financial support to people who pledged not to eat butter. So much for it being a grassroots organisation.
I want to make it very clear that I have no vested interests in anything other than people's health and the truth.
Various heart associations around the world recommend increasing Omega 6 (vegetable) oil consumption and reducing saturated fats, based on flawed studies that have been seriously questioned due to data manipulation. This includes the omission of relevant trials with unfavourable outcomes - that is, leaving out any negative studies (1,2,3) and including studies that combine both Omega 3 (fish oils, which are good for you) and Omega 6 consumption together under the title of 'polyunsaturated fats'. The associations even included poorly conducted studies as long as the studies showed the desired results. This type of publication bias is well known in the research literature, particularly with big drug companies trying to show that their drugs work better than they really do.
Margarine is far from being a natural product - well, as much as you can claim that plastic is natural. The major components of margarine are 'vegetable' oils, obtained from foods such as sunflower seeds, rapeseed, or potentially genetically modified canola and soya beans. These oils are usually extracted using the application of pressure, heat and possibly solvents and then treated with sodium hydroxide to 'neutralise' certain fats in the oil. It is then bleached, filtered and steam treated to produce what is essentially a colourless, flavourless murky looking liquid. The liquid is converted into a solid at room temperature through esterification, which uses high temperature and pressure, along with enzymes or acids, to harden the oil. This is also called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation produces trans fats that are strongly linked with heart disease, cancer and other chronic illnesses. The final product is coloured and flavoured with various agents to make it feel and look like butter. Finally, ingredients like plant sterols and stanols and alpha linolenic acid is added to make it appear healthy. The finished product is neither natural nor healthy.
Plant stanols and sterols are added to reduce cholesterol. However, overwhelming evidence now shows cholesterol is just a poor indicator of heart attack, not the cause (4). It is just the warning sign or, if I can use an analogy, like a fire alarm in your home. It is not the problem itself, but a warning about the problem. You can get plenty of stanol and sterols in nuts, beans and seeds, which are not only natural but also full of other healthful benefits including vitamins, antioxidants, minerals and so much more, and reduce all forms chronic illness. Margarine manufacturers can trumpet the presence of 'heart-healthy' Omega 3 fats on the label, but they are adding plant-based Omega 3 fats (alpha linolenic acid) that do not act like Omega 3 from fish sources. They still have to be converted in our body to fish-like Omega 3s. It is also questionable whether they will be oxidised or not and therefore of any value. Adding a nutrient to toxic food does not make it healthy. Do you really believe the advertising?
Margarine is a major source of trans fatty acids, the intake of which has risen since the early 20th century. Trans fatty acids are synthetic fats produced as a byproduct of the hydrogenation of liquid vegetable oils, making them into solid margarine. An abundance of data indicates that consumption of trans fatty acids increases the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), cancer, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Margarine companies are now obliged to list the amount of trans fats on the side of the packet. Until recently however, margarine has been the single biggest source of these very toxic fats.
In a study of women, long-term margarine and trans fat consumption was associated with a 67% increased risk of heart disease (5). The decrease in intake of trans fatty acids in Denmark saw a 50% reduction in the number of deaths from ischemic heart disease (6). A recent study found that trans fatty acids promote cardiovascular disease by triggering inflammatory processes in the cells lining blood vessels (7). Increased intake of trans fatty acids has also been linked with an increase in the risk of colorectal tumours by about 86% (8). The potentially damaging effects of trans fats may also be passed from a mother to her child during breast feeding and can lead to an increase in cardiac insulin resistance when the kids become adults (9).
During the past 150 years, the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of agribusiness with processed foods, grain-fattened livestock, and hydrogenation of vegetable fats have considerably reduced the available content of Omega 3 fatty acids and increased that of Omega 6 fatty acids. While Omega 6 and 3 oils are considered essential fatty acids, the research is now showing that it is important to get the correct balance of the fats. An imbalance leads to various metabolic diseases. Western diets are now deficient in Omega 3 fatty acids and are laden with excessive amounts of Omega 6 fatty acids compared with the diet on which human beings evolved and their genetic patterns were established. Our diets now have 14 to 20 times more Omega 6 (vegetable oil) than Omega 3 fatty acids. This imbalance is now linked with diseases such as heart attack, stroke, cancer, obesity, insulin resistance, asthma, arthritis, depression, ADHD, Alzheimer's disease and even premature ageing. The ideal balance is less than 4:1 or even 1:1 Omega 6 and 3, respectively.
Omega 6 oils such as corn, safflower, cottonseed, sunflower, and soya are now in nearly all our foods. Apart from the obvious consumption of vegetable oils and margarine you buy in the supermarket - which I hope you are now not going to buy - Omega 6 oils are hidden in most foods. You will find vegetable oils in just about every processed and semi-processed food including bread, cakes, and breakfast cereals and in lots of the plant-based drinks like almond or soya milk in which the main ingredient is often vegetable oil. All the takeaway foods, frozen and packaged dinners have Omega 6 oils. Even the 'new' Mediterranean diet is laden with Omega 6 oils.
When you buy olives, pesto sauce, sundried tomatoes or anything soaking in oil it is now vegetable oil in which it is soaked, not olive oil because vegetable oil is cheaper - unless you go to Italy where most foods are still soaked in olive oil. It is almost impossible to get away from the excess of Omega 6 oils. Time to read the labels! Factory produced eggs have 20 times more Omega 6 than Omega 3 compared to free-range eggs, which have a ratio of 1:1. Similarly, grain-fed beef (which I do not recommend you eat) has around 20:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3 oils because the cows are fed grains rich in Omega 6 oils. Alpha linolenic acid is found in the grass and is converted into the important Omega 3 oils by the animals. It is found only in grass-fed animals. Grass-fed cows are also a lot less stressed and, as a result, have lower levels of inflammation.
On the topic of animal fats, I have highlighted in earlier articles that, despite claims by the Heart Foundation, there is no scientific evidence to suggest saturated fat through dairy consumption is associated with increased heart attack. By contrast, in a 16 year prospective study of 1,529 adult Australians, researchers found a possible beneficial association between intake of full-fat dairy and cardiovascular mortality (10). Whoops, the Heart Foundation got it wrong again.
Again by contrast, the Framingham Heart Study, which followed people for 20 years (a very long and comprehensive study) and recorded heart attack incidence, found margarine intake increased coronary heart disease in men (11). The scientists, in their very conservative language, wrote, "These data offer modest support to the hypothesis that margarine intake increases the risk of coronary heart disease." Not the opposite. In the second 10 year period of the study, the group eating the most margarine had 77% more heart attacks than the group eating none.
Studies that investigated increasing the amount of Omega 6 without a subsequent increase in animal-based Omega 3 (fish oil) consistently found an increase in coronary heart disease (CHD) and all cause mortality. In an early study, published in 1965, researchers found that people consuming corn oil, a rich source of Omega 6, had a 4.64 times (over 400%) increased risk for both chronic heart disease and death from all causes (12). Again, in the restrained language of scientists, the authors of the study concluded that corn oil is "possibly harmful". In another study, in which participants consumed more safflower oil and a safflower oil polyunsaturated margarine, participants had a 49% increased risk of death from all causes including a 91% increase from chronic heart disease and 96% from CVD (13).
In one study specifically on Omega 6 consumption in more than 9,000 people, the risk of non-fatal heart attack and death from coronary heart disease was significantly increased among women consuming the n-6 specific polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) diet for one year or less (14). Women consuming this n-6 specific PUFA diet for any duration had non-significant trends to increased risk of non-fatal heart attack and coronary heart disease and any cardiovascular event including death and stroke (14). In fact, the Lyon Diet Heart Study found that after follow up of 27 months, non-fatal heart attack and coronary heart disease death and overall mortality were 73% and 70% lower in the experimental group who consumed lower Omega 6 oils and replaced vegetable oils with olive oil. This study also demonstrated that lowering linoleic acid (Omega 6 vegetable oil) below 50% is not harmful and may even be beneficial, producing a profound risk reduction in coronary heart disease.
A recent meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials investigating polyunsaturated Omega 6 oil consumption (vegetable oils and margarine) found that there is absolutely no scientific justification for recommending the increased consumption of Omega 6 oils (2). Or, to quote their conclusion, "Advice to specifically increase n-6 PUFA intake … is unlikely to provide the intended benefits, and may actually increase the risks of CHD and death." The study found for non-fatal myocardial infarction (heart attack) and death from coronary heart disease there was an increased risk of 13% for diets with increased Omega 6. The studies that substituted Omega 6 for saturated fatty acids without simultaneously increasing Omega 3 oils also produced an increase in risk of death. It seems the vegetable oils are just as bad as the trans fats and what we are really lacking are the Omega 3 fish oils.
Arachidonic acid is produced in the body from too much Omega 6 and produces chemical messengers that lead to inflammation in the body called eicosanoids and cytokines. The increase in linoleic acid (Omega 6) has been shown to increase the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL cholesterol) (15). There is nothing wrong with cholesterol until it is oxidised. The evidence from animal studies also shows that a high linoleic acid diet can promote certain cancers 16 and other inflammatory diseases. In a study of 203,193 men and women, increased intakes of Omega 6 fatty acid (linoleic acid) doubled the risk of ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, which has seen a rapid increase during recent decades. By contrast the highest intakes of Omega 3 were associated with 77% reduction in the risk of the disease (17). Omega 6 fatty acids are present in the cell membrane of colon cells in the form of arachidonic acid. This can be metabolised to chemical messengers in the body called prostaglandin E2, leukotriene B4 and thromboxane A2, all of which are associated with inflammation. On the other hand, Omega 3 fatty acids, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may prevent colonic inflammation.
There is also research showing that too much Omega 6 oil is contributing to premature ageing. Telomeres, which are in all our cells, are thought to be markers of our ageing because they reflect cumulative oxidative stress and inflammation. The shorter they are, the more we have aged. Because the metabolites of Omega 6 promote inflammation, it is believed that an increase in Omega 6 fatty acid content in our diet decreases the leukocyte telomere length (18,19) and hence speeds up the ageing process.
It is time to rethink our fat consumption. The research shows that fat in itself is not bad. In fact, it is essential and the move away from fat has lead to a more obese and sicker population. What we need to do, however, is decrease our consumption of processed oils like margarine and vegetable oils and increase our Omega 3 fish oils along with Omega 9 oils, including olive oil.
Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate.
He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.
1. Ramsden 2009;
2. Ramsden et al. 2010,
3. Ramsden et al. 2011
4. Dingle 2011 The Great Cholesterol Deception
5. Willett et al. 1993
6. Stender and Dyerberg 2004
7. Harvey et al 2008
8. Vinikoor et al. 2010
9. Osso et al. 2008
10. Bonthuis et al. 2010
11. Gillman 1997
12. Rose et al. 1965
13. Woodhill et al. 1978
14. Frantz et al. 1989
15. Tsimikas et al. 1999
16. Welsh 1992
17. Hart 2008
18. Kang 2010;
19. Kiecolt-Glaser 2012
Dr Peter Dingle (PhD) has spent the past 30 years as a researcher, educator, author and advocate for a common sense approach to health and wellbeing. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor. He is Australia’s leading motivational health speaker and has 14 books in publication.