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Volume 38, No. 2

Margarine or Butter?

Almost daily we are bombarded with manufactures’ advertisements and well-meaning health professionals’ advice to use margarine rather than butter, with the implication that margarine is the better choice. Research leads us to question this choice.

First, we have the problem of "trans fatty acids." Manufactures produce margarine by hydrogenation of liquid vegetable oils – the addition of hydrogen to the fatty acids contained in the oils. Most of the open bonds in the fatty acid carbon chains are filled with hydrogen atoms, making the acids more saturated with hydrogen and thus less liquid, so that they acquire the spreading consistency of butter. This partial hydrogenation disrupts the geometric structure of the fatty acids, producing many trans configurations. ("Trans" means "across, on opposite sides.") At the University of Maryland in 1980 in a study of the percentage of trans fatty acids in 202 selected foods,1 researcher Mary Enig found that 40 margarines contained from 10.6 to 36.0 percent trans fatty acids. On the other hand, butter contained only 3.1 to 3.8 percent trans fatty acids. According to Mark Keeney and associates at the University of Tennessee, "Dietary trans fatty acids are metabolized and incorporated into virtually all tissues and tissue lipid classes studied."2 This incorporation, they found, results in "alterations of membrane structures and functions"3 – a reduction in cell membrane fluidity and a disruption of important enzyme functions.

Second, new evidence in the margarine/butter battle indicates that butter may have a protecting effect against breast tumors. In a study by Mitsuaki Sakamoto and colleagues at Nara (Japan) Medical College,

Spontaneous lifelong breast-tumor formation was compared between mice fed an ordinary diet and those fed one enriched with 20 percent dextrin (starch gum), [or] 20 percent butter, [or] 20 percent margarine, or 20 percent safflower oil. While those on margarine and safflower oil had about the same incidence of breast tumors as mice on the ordinary diet – roughly 45 percent – only 7 percent on the butter diet and 21 percent fed the dextrin diet developed tumors. In rats fed similar diets and exposed to a 5-milligram dose of the carcinogen DMBA, again the butter-fed animals had the lowest tumor incidence of all (40 percent). Margarine-fed animals, by contrast, had the highest tumor incidence (66.7 percent).4

NOHA speaker William E. Lands, in his book, Fish and Human Health, has some appropriate comments on butter:

Ironically, butter fat provides a much different balance of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids than does the average overall diet of Western industrialized nations. Cows (feeding on large amounts of green, leafy materials) accumulate nearly equal amounts of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids and produce milk products that have n-3/n-6 ratios approaching that of the Eskimo diet. Nature has developed a food chain on land that has echoes of that of the sea.5

However, the percentage of unsaturated fat in butter is small and any use of butter (or margarine) must take into account the concentrated calories that must be burned "to avoid overproduction of plasma cholesterol and triglycerides."6 By mapping metabolic paths Professor Lands shows impressively that any food, be it carbohydrate, protein, or fat, can be converted in our bodies to cholesterol.7

In the chapter on polyunsaturated fatty acids in his forthcomming book, NOHA Board of Directors member Walter A. Heiby reviews a great deal of the medical and biochemical literature relevant to our question, "Margarine or Butter?" He concludes, "I think a reasonable objective is to reduce total fat consumption, greatly reduce saturated fat intake, . . . [and reduce] use of trans fatty acids."8


by Marjorie Fisher

1Enig, M., M.S. thesis, University of Maryland, 1980.

2Keeney, M., L. Pallansch, M. Enig, and J. Sampugne, "Trans Fatty Acids: Physiological Implications," Fifth Annual Symposium, Food in Contemporary Society: Its Role in the Treatment of and Recovery from Disease, Department of Nutrition and Food Science, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, May 18-20, 1983, p. 152.

3Ibid., p. 157

4Science News 133(21):332, May 21, 1988.

5Lands, W.E.M., Fish and Human Health, Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 1986, p. 144.

6Ibid.

7Ibid, pp. 98-99.

8Heiby, W.A., The Reverse Effect: How Vitamins and Minerals Promote Health and CAUSE Disease, Deerfield, Illinois: Medi-Science Publishers, 1988, p. 253.

Article from NOHA* NEWS, Fall 1988

*The American Nutrition Association was formerly known as the Nutrition for Optimal Health Association [NOHA].

For informational purposes only - not intended as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, nor an endorsement by the American Nutrition Association®. Use permitted for non-profit and non-commercial uses or by healthcare professionals in their practice, with attribution to www.AmericanNutritionAssociation.org. Other use only with written ANA℠ permission. Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ANA℠. Works by a listed author subject to copyrights as marked. © 2010 ANA℠