What do you put on your toast? On one side, there’s butter – rich, creamy, defiantly full-fat and made for millennia by churning the milk or cream from cattle. On the other, there’s margarine: the artificial spread invented in the 1860s. It might not taste delicious, and it doesn’t sink into your toast like butter, but for decades margarine has ridden a wave of success as the “healthy” alternative.
However, sales of margarine have plummeted in the last year, according to Kantar, with “health” spreads sales dropping by a massive 7.4%.
Meanwhile, butter, the health pariah of so many years, seems to be back in fashion. We bought 8.7% more blocks of butter in 2013. This seems due to two factors: butter is no longer much pricier than margarine and we are all using butter in our newly acquired frenzy for baking. We are also becoming more aware of what is in our food and many of us are veering away from processed foods.
Margarine was invented in 1869 by a French food scientist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who came up with the recipe when Napoleon wanted to find a long-life alternative to butter to feed troops in the Franco-Prussian war. Mège-Mouriès mixed skimmed milk, water and beef fat to create a substance similar to butter in texture. He called it “oleomargarine” after margarites, the Greek word for pearls – a reference to its pearly sheen. In 1871 he sold the patent to Jurgens, a Dutch firm now part of Unilever.
Beef fat was soon replaced by cheaper hydrogenated and non-hydrogenated vegetable oils. After the Second World War, it was a legal requirement to add vitamins to spreads, thus paving the way to make spreads the ‘healthy option’.
Butter has often been sited as the bad option for health reasons, but margarine has taken a bashing on the health front in recent years, too. Negative press about trans fats in the 00s saw many brands remove hydrogenated fats from their spreads and reformulate their recipes. However you look at it, margarine is a highly processed food. It becomes even more unappetising the know that the natural colour of margarine is a dirty grey colour: the fact it is yellow is all down to colouring.
For our generation and that of our parents, butter was always the enemy. Our grandparents knew different. They stuck with a food that had been around for hundreds of years. The truth is that it butter is naturally high in saturated fat, but it is high in vitamins, the sort of cholesterol that is vital for brain and nervous system development and various natural compounds with anti-fungal, anti-oxidant and even anti-cancer properties.
In 2012, a British Medical Journal article by cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, which urged us to choose butter every time, hit the headlines. There seems to be increasing evidence that a diet containing saturated fats, such as those found in butter, do not cause coronary disease. Doctors would still baulk at the suggestion that a diet high in these fats is necessarily healthy, but saturated fats are now beginning to be seen as not the devil food that they have been.
Certain spreads have supposed added value for health by being based on monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil. However, liquid olive oil requires solidification through processing, and this detracts from any healthy properties it may have. Also, like other margarines, olive oil-based spreads will generally have other processes inflicted on it including bleaching, deodorising, colouring and flavouring. An olive oil spread is a very far cry indeed from the extra virgin olive oil we may use for roasting vegetables or as the basis for a salad dressing.
Whatever the base ingredients in margarine, the end product is always a highly processed and chemicalised foodstuff – in stark contrast to the relatively natural nature of butter (made by the churning or milk or cream).
Bearing in mind the fact that margarine is so often assumed to be the hands-down winner in the battle with butter, you might expect there to be plenty of evidence for its superior health effects. Actually, the evidence in the area is scant, and what exists should give us cause for concern.
There are, for instance, two epidemiological studies in which the relationship between butter and margarine consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease was assessed. In neither study was butter consumption found to be associated with increased risk. However, it was a different story for margarine: both studies linked its consumption with worsened health outcomes.
Even more concerning are the findings of what is known as the Sydney Diet Heart Study. Here, men were split into two groups. In one, men ate their normal diet, while in the other the men were instructed to eat a diet rich in safflower oil, ( an oil very close to sunflower oil) including safflower oil-based margarine. The men on this ‘heart-healthy’ diet actually ended up being 74 per cent more likely to die of heart disease.
Then we come to the matter of taste. There are very few people who would honestly say they preferred the taste of margarine to butter. Despite the fact that many spreads add milk to their recipe does not mean it can begin to compare with the taste of butter.
I have always been a butter fan, the synthetic taste of margarine means I would rather have dry toast coat it with spread. I am also wary of the fact that if you believed every article or piece of research you read about food, you would be living off organic celery for the rest of your life.
Putting aside all the recent research into the benefits of butter over margarine, my general tastes and instincts tell me that any food as processed as margarine cannot be good for your health or, indeed, your palate.
Pastry is a case in point: no nutritional it’s would recommend eating it every day, but if you are going to eat it, make sure it is as good as it can be. Many people think life is too short to make pastry, but I recently picked up a ready made packet of puff pastry in the supermarket. The ingredients were:
Wheat Flour,Margarine ,Water ,Ethanol ,Sugar ,Salt ,Acidity Regulator (Citric Acid) ,Margarine contains: Vegetable Fat ,Water ,Emulsifier (Mono- and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids, Sunflower Lecithins) ,Acidity Regulator (Citric Acid) ,Salt.
In fact, ready made pastry can be excellent and great thing to have in the freezer, just make sure that it is all-butter. In the same supermarket, a packet of all butter pastry contained:
Wheat Flour,Butter (29%) ,Water ,Salt.
This sounds less like something from a sci-fi film and more like something I would be happy to put into my body.
I am on a kind of pastry-pilgrimage at the moment, as I have always found it a bit tricky. I will be posting a recipe for a chicken pie very soon- with homemade pastry. Made with butter, naturally.