Yuck, Yuck, Yuck

Ok. So I've talked before about processed foods. Today, I want to focus specifically on one of them, one that--for no particular reason other than personal caprice--is possibly my most-hated example of the entire genre.

I'm talking, of course, about margarine.

Seriously? This is not even close to appetizing.

I think the reason margarine makes me so angry is that everyone seems so convinced that it's some kind of health food! Let me tell you, health food it ain't--in fact, more and more evidence is coming out that not only is it gross, it's unhealthy at best and toxic at worst.

The History of Margarine

Once upon a time, margarine was an ok thing. It was invented in France, as a cheap, shelf-stable way to feed Napoleon's armies, and was made from beef tallow and buttermilk. Unappetizing? Well, army rations have never had much of a reputation for deliciousness, and for a really long time, margarine didn't get much in the way of sales.

When my grandmother was young, margarine sales did pick up in the US, mainly because it was a cheap alternative to butter. Why was it cheap? Well, by that time, people were using hydrogenated soybean oil instead of beef tallow for most of the fat in the margarine. It was still pretty gross, though, because laws in most US states mandated that margarine be sold without color. Think about a vat of Crisco, which is just margarine in its un-dyed, less-well-textured state. Now think about spreading it on your toast. Wouldn't you prefer to just ration your at-home butter use a little more tightly?
Margarine sales picked up even more when companies started circumventing these laws by including small capsules of yellow or orange dye in the containers. When you got your box of pearly-white processed soybean oil (or, sometimes, cottonseed oil. Or, if you were in Canada or the Northeastern US, whale oil, seal oil, and fish oil. Yum!), you turned it out onto your counter, poured some bright yellow dye into it, and kneaded it until the dye was incorporated and you had something that looked... well, buttery enough, I guess, because sales picked up even more. 

Eventually, those anti-dye laws were lifted. Food technology grew more advanced, and by the 90's, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! and similar products had made their debut. These aren't even margarine, which is required by law to have the same fat content as butter. These are low-fat, "buttery" spreads, made from hydrogenated oils, usually soybean or corn oil, since those are the cheapest commodity food oils on the market these days. Hydrogenated oils contain more trans fats, and are generally considered to be, well, just not very good for you (I have weeks' worth of O-Chem notes about this very topic, but I'm not going to go into a deep discussion of chemical food structures here).

The Manufacture of Margarine

The oil in margarine is sometimes obtained through physical factory means (i.e. pressing). More often in mass-produced oils, however, oil is obtained by soaking nuts or seeds in a solvent. The most common of these is hexane, a chemical that will only make you mildly dizzy in small amounts, but whose long-term toxicity causes issues such as peripheral nervous system failure, skeletal muscle atrophy, vision problems, and, in severe cases, degeneration of the axons in the central nervous system.

The manufacture of margarine also includes exposing the oils to a nickel or palladium catalyst to hydrogenate it.  I don't know of any studies that have been done on the presence of hexane, nickel, or palladium residues in margarine. I don't really feel a need to wait for a study. I just assume there's more than I want to be eating (NB, did you know that nickel-catalyzed margarine can cause allergic reactions in people with nickel allergies?).

I will concede that you can find less-hydrogenated versions that are made primarily by adding semi-solid oils like coconut, but even these aren't actually free of trans fats. No hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated fats are totally trans-free. Legally, products can be labeled "0 Trans Fats" as long as they contain an FDA-determined minimum amount.

As an added bonus, when you use a corn, soy, canola, or sunflower-based margarine to cook with, you're heating a polyunsaturated oil. Several long-term dietary fat studies have now found that, when heated and oxidized, these oils can degrade into trans-fats and various toxic compounds.

Well. Now that I've got all that off my chest...

Why I Eat Butter Instead

I'm not saying that butter is objectively healthy. It's not. It's not pure fat, as people like to claim, but it's close--it's mandated by law to be at least 80% milkfat. Salted butter has sodium in it, and it's full of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. I acknowledge these things to be totally true.

Still, let's bear in mind a few things.

1. Some dietary cholesterol is a healthy thing, and your body actually needs it.

When I was working as a nanny, my boss was actually being forced by her doctor to eat more cholesterol because hers was too low, putting her health at risk. Recommendations for dietary cholesterol intake in America are 300mg/day. What does that mean? Well, it means that you can healthily get away with scraping a small-to-moderate amount of butter on your toast instead of margarine.

2. Some dietary fat is a healthy thing, and your body actually needs it.

Not to be redundant here, but we've demonized certain nutrients so far that at this point, people would rather eat toxic chemicals than run the risk of eating a little fat. There is no RDA for fat, as your recommended fat intake varies based on age, gender, height, weight, and activity level. I'm on a diet and eat no more than 1600 calories a day. This puts my recommended daily fat intake at 30-40 grams. More is too much, yes, but less is too little. Once again, this means I can healthily get away with scraping a small-to-moderate amount of butter on my toast.

3. The less-processed option is always better for you.

I don't have a scientific study or reference for this one. I consider it to be common sense. We simply don't know the extent of non-nutrient chemicals and substances in our food, and the more processed our food is, the more things get into it whose origins and identities we're simply unaware of. Maybe in 100 years I'll turn out to be wrong. In the meantime, though, I'm not willing to take the risk and it doesn't hurt me or Mr. Scrimp to avoid the foods we're not sure about.

A Final Word

If you eat margarine, the only thing I ask of you is that you don't try to convince yourself that it's healthy. If you like the taste and are willing to run the health risks involved, then I really don't care, I guess. Much like smoking, if you want to do it, as long as you're making an informed decision to run that risk, I'm not going to try and force you to stop.

What infuriates, frustrates, and saddens me is the fact that so many people I know have become somehow convinced that this is better for them. Please, try to recognize that it's not.


  1. I read something, probably something you linked me to, that we should try to avoid eating anything our great-great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. While I love some things too much - thankfully not margarine! - to do this, I always feel better about something I've eaten when I try to.

  2. It's maddening to see people eating tubs of chemicals in pursuit of a healthy diet. It's literally like watching them buy and eat poison.

    I love the less-processed approach--that's how we do our diet as well. I pulled out a can of soup the other day when I didn't feel like cooking, and I got sick after eating it.

  3. There are some things it's been hard for us to cut out (Taco Bell and Cheez-Its are both on the list, although we almost never eat the latter anymore), I find that not only do I get MUCH more intellectual satisfaction out of the "better" foods.. now that I've had the nasty stuff out of my diet for a while, I can't eat it without getting sick.

    Sometimes it's just mild nausea, but more often lately Mr. Scrimp and I have both found that an overabundance of processed food will result in painful and prodigiously upset stomachs for anywhere from 6 hours to 2 days.

  4. All of this is so true. When I found out I wasn't allowed to eat fat except in teeny-tiny amounts (it makes me horribly ill), I started cooking without butter or anything similar. Someone, being "helpful" asked "can't you just use margarine?" I'm pretty sure my reply was something along the lines of "I'd rather eat a full stick of butter and risk being sick."



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