Should you eat butter or margarine?

“Which is healthier to use, butter or margarine?” Several readers recently asked me this question.

They had read a newspaper article about the pros and cons of both products and remained confused. It’s easy to understand how this happens. Many years ago, I also wondered who was right.

“Switch to margarine. It will help to prevent heart attack” a cardiologist cautioned me at that time and so I made the switch. After all, I didn’t want an early coronary attack.

Margarine use increased after the Second World War when it became less expensive than butter. The message, it’s better for your heart, continues to be a major selling factor. Many types of margarine also receive a healthy sales boost from the “Health Check” imprint of the Heart and Stroke Foundation on packages.

The fact that margarine contains less saturated fat and no cholesterol also appears to make it a healthy choice. But is it?

Regardless of which way you analyze this question, one point stands out. Butter is nature’s product and margarine is a substitute, a manufactured one. I’ve always been wary of substitutes and mindful of the immortal bard, Shakespeare, who said it well, “A substitute shines brightly as a king, until a king be by!”

Butter does contain more saturated fat than margarine and does have cholesterol. But cholesterol isn’t the devil it’s made out to be. It’s present in every cell of the body and 90% of our blood cholesterol is produced by our own liver. We would die without it.

History can also guide us in this debate. Saturated fats have been used for thousands of years as the main form of cooking oil. For instance, lard, used in China, butter in Europe, ghee in India and coconut oil in the tropics. The people of Okinawa are known for their longevity and their main cooking oil is lard.

The French diet is loaded with saturated fats and yet they have a low rate of coronary heart disease. In Canada, the Eskimo diet is mainly meat and lard and they too have a lower rate of heart disease. Today there’s new evidence that saturated fat isn’t the bad guy it’s been made out to be.

Let’s also consider how margarine is made. The process is called “hydrogenation” which makes liquid oils solid at room temperature. To do this, hydrogen is added to the oil, but this also creates trans fatty acids, not found in nature, which have been linked to heart disease. Today trans fats have been largely removed from margarine but it’s still a manufactured product.

Another selling point for margarine is that it contains healthy, essential omega-3 fatty acids. But few consumers know that not all omega-3 essential fatty acids are the same. For instance, margarine is made from plant sources such as soybean and canola oils. Several experts claim these oils are not as good as the omega-3 fatty acids in fish.

Critics also point out that vegetable oils used to manufacture margarine contain large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. Our body needs this type of fatty acid, but today people are getting too much of it in processed foods. This imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 is being linked to an increase in cardiovascular disease, asthma, cancer, depressions and other problems.

I stopped listening to my cardiologist years ago. I don’t believe the farmers’ hens and cows are responsible for the increased rate of heart disease. I think it’s a combination of human folly such as the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and general lethargy that’s become so much a part of our society.

One hundred years ago coronary attack was rare. Dr. Paul Dudley White, Harvard’s renowned cardiologist, remarked that it was so infrequently seen then that other doctors would be summoned to the emergency when a case arrived so they could learn from the experience. Now you do not have to wait long in any major hospital to witness a coronary event. This should tell us something.