"Don’t buy any more butter," I told my wife many years ago.
I was a naive young doctor at that time and I believed my cardiologist who advised the use of margarine instead to prevent heart attack. But this dutiful switch did not last long. Later, as a not-so-naive medical journalist, I questioned my cardiologist’s reasoning.
Now, the cows are having the last laugh.
The Annals of Internal Medicine reports 27 clinical trials that involved 600,000 participants. Researchers concluded that the use of margarine, namely a high intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids, did not have any beneficial effect on cardiovascular health. Hence, some nutritionists are saying "Butter is back."
But the question is, should butter have ever gone away?
So, what is the difference between butter and margarine? Butter is a natural product that has been around for centuries, made by churning the fatty part of cow’s milk into butter. Margarine is a synthetic product manufactured by exposing vegetable oils to high pressure and hydrogen gas. In the process a number of questionable artificial additives such as colourants are added.
Hydrogenation is needed because vegetable oil is a liquid at room temperature and this process makes it harder and ensures a longer shelf-life. The bad news is that hydrogenation turns some of the vegetable oil into unhealthy trans fats. So for years people have been eating trans fats without knowing its health hazards.
The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, however — long proponents of margarine — won’t give up and still argue that butter, cheese and fatty meat are linked to heart disease.
So, what should confused medical consumers do? Fortunately some authorities are now challenging the so-called "heart healthy margarine" concept. It’s about time, as there has never been good evidence linking saturated fats and cholesterol in butter to coronary heart disease.
What has happened in the last few decades is that multinational companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars demonizing butter and praising the virtues of margarine. They’ve proved that Madison Avenue advertising works as both the public and doctors have been persuaded margarines containing polyunsaturated fats were the way to cardiac health.
It’s a classic example of what happens today when multinational companies use questionable scientific facts and big dollars to sell a questionable manufactured product.
Now it appears that powerful lobbies for manufacturers of margarine, along with years of governmental health advice, have been wrong. But isn’t it interesting that neither of these organizations has apologized to the public for subjecting them to unhealthy trans fats for years.
What is equally appalling is that for years, there has been a carte blanche acceptance of butter demonization by so many researchers and the medical profession. History may show it has been a monumental error.
Good sense should have told us years ago that as a natural product, butter is healthier than one subjected to a manufacturing process.
Butter is rich in vitamins A, E and K2 along with minerals such as zinc, copper, manganese and selenium. The saturated fats in butter increase the good cholesterol HDL and help to guard against bad cholesterol LDL. Butter provides the perfect balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats as too many people are eating an excessive amount of omega-6 fatty acids. There’s lecithin in butter, also essential for cholesterol metabolism.
The list goes on and on.
So, what is the big lesson here? Government and manufacturers should have listened to Leonardo da Vinci when he wrote 500 years ago that "nature never breaks her own laws." It’s taken nature eons to determine how much cholesterol, minerals and other nutrients our body needs to keep us all alive.
Time and time again, nature has proven to be safer and smarter than any manufacturing process.
What happens when multinational companies try to better a natural product like butter with an unnatural concoction such as margarine? As sure as night follows day, there will be unintended consequences.
The immortal bard, William Shakespeare, issued an appropriate warning: "A substitute shines brightly as a king until a king be by."
» Dr. Gifford-Jones is a graduate of The University of Toronto and The Harvard Medical School. He took post-graduate training in surgery at the Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, McGill University in Montreal and Harvard. During his medical training he has been a family doctor, hotel doctor and ship’s surgeon. His medical column is published by 70 Canadian newspapers, several in the U.S. and the Epoch Times which has editions in a number of European countries.