Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Urban Myth or Scarey Truth?

As leader of my TOPS group, one of the things I strongly advocate is for every member to offer suggestions for meeting topics, to bring problems or success stories to the meetings for discussion.  It’s difficult to come up with a different, informative and hopefully interesting topic every week.  I never mind being interrupted when something I’ve mentioned happens to pull a thread and the discussion veers off in a direction I had not planned.  And, most importantly, I never ever mind if someone wants to lead the meeting for one week.  It gives me a little break and its fun listening to what other people find to bring to the table.

When I plan my meeting topics I try to do as much research as I can because I do not want to impart false information to my members.  Group members who disagree with what I am saying sometimes shoot me down, but that’s what always leads to those lively discussions.  Weight loss and dieting is by no means an exact science.  What succeeds for one person may not for someone else?  Lively discussion or not, agreement or not, the one thing I can fall back on is my research.

A couple of weeks ago our sole male group member asked if he could read something he had been sent in an email from a friend of his who is also on a weight loss journey.  He thought it would be an interesting topic to discuss.  Of course I immediately said yes.

The following is the email that he read to the group.  I include it in its entirety so you can make up your own mind.

Pass the butter please …

Margarine was originally manufactured to fatten turkeys.

When it killed the turkeys, the people who had put all the money into the research wanted a payback so they put their heads together to figure out what to do with this product to get their money back.  It was a white substance with no food appeal so they added the yellow coloring and sold it to people to use in place of butter.  

How do you like it?  They have come out with some clever new flavoring. 

Do you know the difference between margarine and butter?

Read on to the end … it gets very interesting.

1.  Both have the same amount of calories.
2.  Butter is slightly higher in saturated fats at 8 grams; compared to 5 grams for margarine.
3.  Eating margarine can increase heart disease in women by 53% over eating the same amount of butter, according to a recent Harvard Medical Study.
4.  Eating butter increases the absorption of many other nutrients in food.
5.  Butter has many nutritional benefits where margarine has a few and only because they are added.
6.  Butter tastes much better than margarine and it can enhance the flavours of other foods.
7.  Butter has been around for centuries where margarine has been around for less than 100 years.

And now, for Margarine;

1.  Margarine is very high in trans fatty acids.
2.  Margarine triples the risk of coronary heart disease.
3.  Margarine increases total cholesterol and LDL (this is the bad cholesterol) and lowers HDL (the good cholesterol).
4.  Margarine increases the risk of cancers up to five times.
5.  Margarine lowers the quality of breast milk.
6.  Margarine decreases immune response.
7.  Margarine decreases insulin response.

And here’s the most disturbing fact … here is the part that is VERY interesting!

8.  Margarine is but one molecule away from being plastic and shares 27 ingredients with paint.

These facts alone were enough to have me avoiding margarine for life and anything else that is hydrogenated (this means hydrogen being added, changing the molecular structure of the substance).

You can try this yourself:

Purchase a tub of margarine and leave it open in your garage or shaded area.  Within a couple of days you will notice a couple of things:
* no flies, not even those pesky fruit flies, will go near it (that should tell you something)
* it does not rot or smell differently because it has no nutritional value, nothing will grow on it.  Even those teeny weenie microorganisms will not find a home to grow.

Why?  Because it is nearly plastic.

Would you melt your Tupperware™ and spread that on your toast?

Chinese Proverb:  When someone shares something of value with you and you benefit from it, you have a moral obligation to share it with others.

Now, I know there are many products marketed as “food” which are questionable.  Yes, they are edible, that’s about all you can say about them.  I found this a little frightening because I happen to margarine.  Not that I prefer its taste over butter, and goodness knows the price is certainly not a determining factor.  I prefer it for the simple fact that it is always spreadable.  In my eyes, that’s its one redeeming quality.  I can take it out of the fridge and spread it on my toast in the morning.  Now I had to try and weigh that CONVENIENCE against all the horrible things I had just heard.

One thing that our region does for TOPS leaders is to collect a meeting idea from each group, copy them and distribute the collection of ideas to other group leaders for potential meeting discussion ideas.  As I was going through the binder to gather ideas what did I find but a copy of the very same email printed off, indicating that it had been read at another TOPS meeting as well.  Obviously, this email is circulating quite efficiently!

What S. read to the group led to one of the aforementioned lively discussions with the group split pretty evenly down the middle in the pro and con departments.  Despite the fact that this article allegedly came straight from a Harvard study, to me, it had a bit of an “urban myth” taste to it.  Not purposely trying to discredit the information he brought to the table, but I just felt a need to check into it a little bit further.  I was a little surprised at what I found …

The above quoted compilation began circulating on the Internet in June 2003, often under the title
“Butter vs. Margarine,” and surprisingly enough there was a fair bit of truth to it, at least a the time.  According to the latest finding in the medical world in 2003, margarine could increase the risk of heart disease, depending upon the type of fat contained in the spread.  Previously, the dietary villain in the development of coronary disease was presumed to be saturated fat, but new evidence points the finger at trans fat (also known as trans fatty acids).  Although butter has its own set of dietary shortcomings, it does not contain trans fat.

Margarine was once written off as a plastic-like substance linked to clogged arteries and increased health risks.

But the product has undergone a major transformation in recent years, so much so that many brands are starting to more closely resemble a health product than a high-fat butter like spread.  Today’s margarines contain only traces of maligned trans fats, are fortified with essential fatty acids – particularly omega-3 – and vitamins, and are sometimes even infused with olive oil.  Most brands are also relatively low in saturated fats or calories and contain no cholesterol.  Numerous types of margarine carry the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check seal, a designation that tells consumers the product has met its nutrition criteria.  Product labels are also designed to boast about the healthy changes.

Does that mean the age-old debate over the health benefits of butter versus margarine is finally over?

The short answer is no.

Margarine has been around for more almost 200 years and came into widespread (no pun intended) use following the Second World War largely because of its low price and purported health benefits.

But public opinion changed in recent years when concern over the high levels of trans fats in many margarine brands reached a fever pitch.  Companies went back to the drawing board, reformulated products and put a major emphasis on the health aspects of margarine.

Yet, camps remain divided on whether margarine’s evolution represents real benefits for consumers.

One of the main points of contention is the type of omega-3 fatty acid found in margarine.  Most of it comes from plant sources, such as canola or soybean oil, which many health experts say is less beneficial to health than omega-3 derived from fish.

Unilever Canada has been actively promoting the health aspects of margarine, particularly with its Becel line of products.  Nearly all Becel products contain omega-3, but only one, Becel Omega-3plus, contains fatty acids from fish oil, not plant oil. 

To boost its health profile, the margarine industry has also taken to promoting the fact it’s low in saturated fat, a thinly veiled jab at butter.  Like most dairy products, butter has a relatively high amount of saturated fats, which have been associated with a higher risk of heart disease and other serious health problems.

BUT, the margarine maker’s jabs may be a moot point – growing evidence suggests saturated fat may not be as harmful as once thought.  Recent research found the risk of heart disease or stroke was similar between people who consumed the highest and lowest amounts of saturated fat.

That type of research provides ammunition to the dairy industry, which has faced a butter backlash due in large part to its high saturated fat content.
Above information gathered from and

I found the best breakdown on the truth or fiction issue provided by however, even their article was a little outdated.  I will follow their format and go through the original email with more current information.

Step by step …

1.  Margarine was originally manufactured to fatten turkeys.  When it killed the turkeys, the people who had put all the money in the research wanted a payback so they put their heads together to figure out what to do with this product to get their money back.  It was a white substance with no food appeal, so they added the yellow coloring and sold it to people to use in place of butter.
FICTION  - Margarine originated with the discovery, by French chemist Eugene Chevreul in 1813, of margaric acid.  Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory substitute for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes.  French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries invented a substance he called oleomargarine, the name of which became shorted to the trade name “margarine”.  Mege-Mouries patented the concept in 1869 and expanded his initial manufacturing operation from France but had little commercial success.  In 1871, he sold the patent to the Dutch company Jurgens, now part of Unilever.  In the same year the German pharmacist Benedict Klein from Cologne founded the first margarine factory “Benedict Klein Margarinewerke”, producing the brands Overstolz and Botteram.

The principal raw material in the original formulation of margarine was beef fat.  Shortages in supply combined with advance by Boyce and Sabatier in the hydrogenation of plant materials soon led to the introduction of vegetable oils to the process, and between 1900 and 1920 oleomargarine was produced from a combination of animal fats and hardened and unhardened vegetable oils.  The depression of the 1930’s, followed by the rationing of WWII, led to a reduction in supply of animal fat; and, by 1945, “original” margarine almost complete disappeared from the market.  In the U.S. problems with supply, coupled with changes in legislation, caused manufacturers to switch almost completely to vegetable oils and fats by 1950.  The industry was ready for an era of product development.

The competition between major producers was given impetus with the beginning of commercial television advertising in 1955; and throughout the 1950s and 1960s, competing companies vied with each other produce the margarine that tasted the most like butter.

IN 1978, an 80% fat product called KRONA, made by churning a blend of dairy cream and vegetable oils, was introduced in Europe; and, in 1982, a blend of cream and vegetable oils called CLOVER was introduced in the UK by the milk marketing board.  The vegetable oil and cream spread “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” was introduced in Canada in 1991.

2.  Both margarine and butter have the same amount of calories.
FACT – A tablespoon of butter has 100 calories and a tablespoon of margarine has 100 calories.

3.  Eating margarine can increase heart disease in women by 53% over eating the same amount of butter, according to a recent Harvard Medical Study.
FACT BUT UPDATED – I did not come across the “53%” study, but the Harvard School of Public Health published a report on this.  It states that more than 30 years ago research indicated that saturated fat (such as butter) was bad for the heart and people were told to switch to margarine.  A Harvard study of women between 1980 and 1994 found a significant reduction in heart disease risk by reducing smoking, hormone treatment, and dietary improvements including reducing or eliminating saturated fat (such as in butter).  Further research has shown, however, that some margarines contained trans fat, which was even worse for the heart than saturated fat – we can assume this had some bearing over the inclusion of the 53% in the original quote.  Over the past decade, margarine spreads have gone through many developments in efforts to improve their healthfulness.  Most brands have phased out the use of hydrogenated oils, and are now also trans fat free.  As well, many brands have launched refrigerator-stable margarine spreads that contain only 1/3 of the fat and calorie content of traditional spreads.  As mentioned previously, other varieties of spreads include those with added Omega-3 fatty acids, those with low or no salt, those with added plant sterols, claimed to reduce blood cholesterol, and some made from olive oil or certified vegan oils.

4.  Butter is slightly higher in saturated fats …
FACT – A tablespoon of butter is 7g of saturated fat.  A tablespoon of margarine is 2g of saturated fat.

5.  Eating butter increases the absorption of many other nutrients in other foods.
FACT BUT WITH AN EXPLANATION – A recent study made by the American Journal of Clinical nutrition shows that dietary fact helps the absorption of vitamins from fruits and vegetables.  Fat, along with carbohydrates and protein are considered the three macronutrients essential in everyone’s diet.  Fat plays many roles in the body such as providing energy, regulating body temperatures, protecting internal organs and aiding in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.  With the changes made to the composition of margarine in recent years, I think it would be safe to assume the playing field is level in the matter of butter and margarine.

6.  Butter has many nutritional benefits where margarine has a few, only because they have been added.
UNDECIDED – It depends on what you are measuring.  The advantage of butter is that it is a more natural product than margarine and does have higher vitamin content.  But butter is high in saturated fat.  Heart doctors have started recommending butter over original margarine BUT recommend trans fat free margarines over butter.  It all gets very confusing so watch your labels.

7.  Butter tastes much better than margarine and it can enhance the flavors of other foods.
UNDECIDED – As is so often the case when discussing food, that is a matter of personal preference.

8.  Butter has been around for centuries where margarine has been around for less than 100 years.
FICTION – This was covered under the first point, but margarine has been around since at least 1813, making it almost 200 years old.  Granted, a relative newcomer when compared to butter.

9.  Margarine is high in trans fatty acids.
FICTION – As mentioned previously, this may have been the case originally, and my still be the case for some margarines on the market.  But science and research and current technology have taken this argument off the table.  Again … read your food labels!

10.  Margarine triples the risk of coronary disease.
11.  Margarine increases total cholesterol and LDL and lowers HDL cholesterol.
12.  Margarine increases the risk of cancer up to five-fold.
FICTION – Even before the changes made to eliminate trans fatty acids, there was no conclusive studies done to substantiate the “triples the risk” or the “five-fold” claims.  The cholesterol issue has been addressed with the changes in the trans fatty acids issue.

13.  Margarine lowers the quality of breast milk. 
FACT AT THE TIME BUT SINCE AMENDED – In one study done comparing Canadian breast milk to Chinese breast milk, Canadian mothers had 33 more trans fats in their milk than the Chinese mothers.  So the quality of the breast mil can be affected by the consumption of trans fats.  Of course, the quality of breast milk is affected both negatively and positively by anything ingested by the nursing mother.  Although I labeled this point as a “FACT” with the reduction of trans fatty acids in margarine the statement definitely needs to be amended.

14.  Margarine decreases immune response.
15.  Margarine decreases insulin response.
FACT AT THE TIME BUT NOW FICTION – These have both been addressed and eliminated with the changes made to margarine with regards to the trans fatty acids content.

16.  Margarine is but ONE MOLECULE away from being PLASTIC.
FICTION – These types of statements (even if they were true) are essentially meaningless.  Many disparate substances share similar chemical properties, but even the slightest variation in molecular structure can make a world of difference in the qualities of those substances.  This statement is more than likely a hyperbole tossed in by the author in an effort to make his point more strongly.  The claim that some product is “but a single molecule away” from being a decidedly inedible (or even toxic) substance has been applied to a variety of processed foods.  The following are all quotes from emails submitted to, the premier Internet site for “myth-busting”:

“I was told that the difference between Cool Whip and Styrofoam is one molecule … is this true?” (November 2005)

“Is Velveeta Processed Cheese food really one molecule different from plastic?” (December 2006)

“I heard Pam spray is 1 molecule away from plastic and is therefore dangerous?”
(March 2007)

“I am tired of hearing my husband say the Cheez Whiz is only 2 ingredients different from garbage bags.  Can you please set him straight?” (January 2008)

Perhaps whoever wrote this heard a discussion about the “plasticity” of margarine.  It is “Plastic” at room temperature meaning that the shape of it can be changed when pressure is applied.  That does not mean it is composed of what we normally think of as plastic.  It was, after all, originally made of animal fats but increasingly now is made from vegetable oils.

So … this long tome of a blog post (and it really turned out much longer than I ever anticipated or intended … so thanks for bearing with me, if you made it this far) is the outcome of my research on the Butter vs. Margarine debate.  It has cleared up some misconceptions in my mind.  At the risk of making a long blog post even longer, I also came across some interesting tidbits of information that didn’t really fit into my answer to the ongoing debate.  If you’re interested I include them below:

Since margarine intrinsically appears white or almost white, by forbidding the addition of artificial coloring
agents, legislators found that they could protect the dairy industries by discouraging the consumption of margarine based on lack of visual appeal.  Bans on color became commonplace in the U.S., Australasia, Canada and Denmark and, in some cases, those bans endured for almost 100 years.  It did not become legal to sell colored margarine in Australia, for example, until the 1960s.  The rivalry between the dairy industry and the oleomargarine industry persists even today.

In Canada margarine was banned from 1886 until 1948 though this ban was temporarily lifted from 1917 until 1923 due to dairy shortages.  Nevertheless, bootleg margarine was produced in the neighboring
Dominion of Newfoundland from whale, seal and fish oil by the Newfoundland Butter Company and was smuggled to Canada where it was widely sold for half the price of butter.  The Supreme Court of Canada lifted the margarine ban in 1948 in the Margarine Reference.  In 1950, as a result of a court ruling giving provinces the right to regulate the product, rules were implemented in much of Canada regarding margarine’s color, requiring it to be bright yellow or orange in some provinces or colorless in others.  By the 1980s, most provinces had lifted the restriction, however, in Ontario it was not legal to sell butter-colored margarine until 1995.  Quebec, the last Canadian province to regulate margarine coloring, repealed its law requiring margarine to be colorless in July 2008.

In the United States as early as 1877, the first U.S. states had passed laws to restrict the sale and labeling of margarine.  By the mid 1880s, the U.S. federal government had introduced a tax of two cents per pound, and manufacturers needed an expensive license to make or sell the product.  Individual states began to require the clear labeling of margarine.  The color bans, drafted by the butter lobby, began in the dairy states of New York and New Jersey.  In several states, legislatures enacted laws to require margarine manufacturers to add pink colorings to make the product look unpalatable, but the Supreme Court struck down New Hampshire’s law and overruled these measures.  Some localities required restaurants using margarine to post signs reading “Artificial Butter Used Here”.

By the start of the 20th century, eight out of ten Americans could not buy yellow margarine, and those that
could had to pay a hefty tax on it.  Bootleg colored margarine became common, and manufacturers began to supply food-coloring capsules so that the consumer could knead the yellow color into margarine before serving it.  Nevertheless, the regulations and taxes had a significant effect; the 1902 restrictions on margarine color, for example, cut annual U.S. consumption by one-third.

With the coming of WWI, margarine consumption increased enormously, even in countries away from the front like the U.S.  In the countries closest to the fighting, dairy products became almost unobtainable and were strictly rationed.  The UK, for example, depended on imported butter from Australia and New Zealand, and the risk of submarine attack meant little survived the trip.

The long-running battle between the margarine and dairy lobbies continued:  In the U.S., the Great Depression brought a renewed wave of pro-dairy legislation; the Second World War, a swing back to margarine.  Post-war, the margarine lobby gained power and, little by little, the main margarine restrictions were lifted, the most recent states to do so being Minnesota in 1963 and Wisconsin in 1967.  Lois Dowdle Cobb of Atlanta Georgia led the move to lift the restriction on margarine, but some unenforced laws still remain on the books. (

Who knew, something I so took for granted had such a controversial and interesting history.  But, after what amounts to 4000 words later I can feel better about enjoying the convenience of spreading margarine on my toast in the morning.

And that having been said … someone had to introduce me to the “Butter Bell Crock”.

Sheesh …. Does this Butter vs. Margarine controversy ever end???????

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