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Oils and fats expert busts four anti-margarine myths

Margarine is one molecule away from plastic, it was originally developed as an animal feed and it increases cardiovascular-disease risk – these are just some of the many claims made about margarine. We examine the evidence for each of these claims with expert advice from oils and fats specialist Dr Laurence Eyres, chairman of the Oils and Fats Specialist Group, a division of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, and a retired Food Standards Australia New Zealand board member. Eyres has worked in the food industry for both butter and margarine manufacturers.

1. ‘Margarine was originally developed as an animal feed.’

Margarine was invented in 1869 by Frenchman Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès in response to a competition sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III, who wanted a cheap, tasty substitute for butter that would store well on ships. Butter was expensive and in short supply at that time. Mège-Mouriès won the Emperor’s competition with his margarine, which was a big hit in France. Its popularity eventually spread across Europe and through the Western world.

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2. ‘Margarine is one molecule away from plastic.’

A nonsensical statement, according to Eyres. “It’s like saying methanol is similar to ethanol, when we know ethanol is safely consumed in alcoholic drinks but methanol ingestion causes blindness and death,” says Eyres. “It’s nonsense.” Many organic compounds, such as fats, are formed from carbon, ­hydrogen and oxygen. And many have similar constructions. Nonetheless, a one-molecule difference is substantial in scientific terms.

3. ‘Margarine is high in trans-fatty acids and increases cardiovascular disease risk.’

Margarine was ­originally ­manufactured by ­hydrogenating vegetable oils (adding ­hydrogen to the vegetable oils to solidify them), a process that ­produced ­significant quantities of trans-fatty acids. Scientists then discovered trans-fatty acids increased cardiovascular disease risk. Clearly, limiting both our trans-fat and ­saturated-fat intake is a good idea. However, margarine-manufacturing technologies have since changed ­substantially; Australasian manufacturers removed trans fats about 15 years ago, says Eyres. ­Margarine and spreads are now produced by interesterification and blending with unsaturated liquid oils. Consequently, most vegetable-oil-based margarines contain almost no trans-fatty acids and relatively low levels of saturated fats. What’s more, most of the products we refer to nowadays as margarine are actually a spread, says Eyres. By law, margarine has to be 80% fat, whereas products containing less fat than this are called spreads. Most of the products in the supermarket contain about 65% fat, says Eyres. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a margarine in the supermarket; they’re all spreads.” Spreads can provide cholesterol-reducing blends of unsaturated oils and plant sterol esters.

4. ‘Margarine doesn’t decompose at room temperature, whereas butter does, proving margarine has no nutritional value.’

Not true, according to Eyres. Margarine is ­microbiologically more stable and doesn’t decompose as quickly as butter because it doesn’t contain milk, he says. Milk is a source of protein that micro-­organisms thrive in. Hence butter, which contains protein, will decompose more quickly than margarine at room temperature. Eyres points to the Heart Foundation’s advice on butter, on its website, for a well-balanced view on the use of butter versus margarine. The Heart Foundation notes that, “while using small amounts of butter every now and then shouldn’t be a problem for most people, the clear, unequivocal evidence remains that there are far healthier fats for our heart. It is better for our hearts to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats. Making the simple swap from butter to margarine spreads is one way to do this.”

This article was first published in the January 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.