Butter Me Up!
Recently, I wrote about a guy in Massachusetts who sued Dunkin' Donuts for “buttering” his bagels with margarine instead of real butter. (Spoiler: He won.) And that got me thinking: why are we even having this discussion? Margarine is dead. Long live butter!
Distributor US Foods says its butter sales jumped almost seven percent in 2016 and Americans are forecast to eat a projected 940,000 metric tons of butter in 2017, a substantial eight percent more than they did in the previous year. The Department of Agriculture says that's the highest consumption of butter in the US since about 1967, the time when margarine began its meteoric rise in popularity.
Margarine – or oleomargarine – has been around since the mid-nineteenth century when it was developed by a French chemist to serve Napoleon III's army as a cheap substitute for butter. But very few people in their right minds ate the stuff by choice. Butter was abundantly available and relatively affordable if you weren't feeding an army. It remained that way right up through most of the first half of the twentieth century. Then WWII and its rationing programs came along and butter took a real hit. People got used to margarine doing the war years and, fueled by copious advertising dollars, “oleo” sales took off in the 1950s. Margarine was “modern” and fit right in with the trends of the '50s; plastic furniture, plastic toys, and plastic butter. Even butter strongholds like Wisconsin, where margarine was actually illegal well into the 1960s, eventually caved in to the demand for margarine.
Let me ask you a simple question: Why would you buy margarine? Would you buy it because you are health conscious? Would you buy it because you are cost conscious? Or would you buy it because you are simply unconscious? By that I mean you buy it out of habit just because you always have, or because your mother did, or because that's just what somebody on TV told you to do. And if you try to tell me you buy it because you really and truly prefer the taste, I'll call a doctor to examine your single malfunctioning taste bud.
I mean, how many margarines have touted themselves over the years as being “buttery tasting?” How many of them blend themselves with butter so they taste more buttery? Conversely, how many times have you seen butter advertisements that say, “Mmmmm...tastes just like margarine!” Admittedly, somebody who has grown up on the chemical taste and texture of butter-flavored axle grease may believe they actually like it, not knowing any better way. But in general terms, flavor is not a factor in this discussion. So, let's go back to the other excuses … I mean, reasons … for buying margarine.
It's cheap. Okay, if cost is your prime motivator, though it pains me to admit it, you win. There is no doubt that margarine is cheaper than butter. Taste, quality, and cooking performance aside, if your budget is so slim that you have to feed yourself and your family a diet of low quality, cut-rate, processed imitation food products, then that's the way it is. There is no point in your reading any further. I've already lost you and nothing I can bring to the table will change your mind. And I weep for you.
Now, let's bring the health bandwagon to the front of the parade. Margarine is so-o-o-o much better for you than butter! Butter has cholesterol! Butter causes heart attacks! Butter is evil! The road to hell is greased with butter! Margarine is safer! Margarine is healthier! No saturated fat! Heart-healthy! Omega-3! Cholesterol free! It's all Madison Avenue, folks. None of it is Mayo Clinic. In fact, here's a fun quote from the Mayo Clinic; “not all margarines are created equal — and some may even be worse than butter.” To which you gargle, “Oh! Oh! How can anything be worse than butter? All that saturated fat! All that cholesterol!”
Let's have a word about fat. Specifically, trans fat. Again, from the Mayo Clinic; “Like saturated fat, trans fat increases blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. In addition, trans fat can lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or 'good,' cholesterol levels.” What's more, trans fats have been shown to make blood platelets stickier. Just what everybody needs, stickier platelets! They clump up and clot so much easier. And you know what? Margarine's loaded with the stuff! Especially the solid stick margarines that most people buy because they are cheap! One tablespoon of cheap stick margarine packs a whopping 3 grams of trans fat and 2 grams of saturated fat.
Now, there are “good” margarines out there. Mayo cites Benecol and Promise Activ. They are fortified with plant stanols and sterols, which can help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol levels. But in the same paragraph, the docs at Mayo recommend using whipped or light butter or a butter blended with canola or olive oil “if you don't like the taste of margarine.” Hardly a medical mandate for margarine, eh? Some cardiologists today actually recommend butter over regular stick margarine.
Here's the scoop from Harvard Medical School: “The truth is, there never was any good evidence that using margarine instead of butter cut the chances of having a heart attack or developing heart disease. Making the switch was a well-intended guess, given that margarine had less saturated fat than butter, but it overlooked the dangers of trans fats. Today the butter-versus-margarine issue is really a false one. From the standpoint of heart disease, butter is on the list of foods to use sparingly mostly because it is high in saturated fat, which aggressively increases levels of LDL. Margarines, though, aren’t so easy to classify. The older stick margarines that are still widely sold are high in trans fats, and are worse for you than butter. Some of the newer margarines that are low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated fat, and free of trans fats are fine as long as you don’t use too much (they are still rich in calories).”
So, it boils down to a matter of picking your artery-clogging poison. Neither butter nor margarine are on anybody's list of health foods. Butter is better than some margarines and some margarines are better than butter. But there's one thing that butter brings to the table, and that's nutritional value. Butter is an excellent natural source of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K. Not so with margarine, which has very little nutritional value at all.
What caps the issue for me is the fact that butter has been around since the dawn of civilization while margarine was created from a chemistry set about a hundred-fifty years ago. So if I have to make a choice between a good-tasting, natural substance that's bad for me and a bad-tasting, artificial substance that's bad for me – well, just call me “Mr. Natural.”
From a culinary standpoint, there isn't a margarine on the planet that can beat butter's performance in cooking. I know, a lot of recipes call for “butter or margarine.” That's primarily because margarine was being promoted so heavily when most of them were written. But the difference in the results is remarkable. Butter has browning and flavoring characteristics that margarine can only dream about. Butter is more heat stable than margarine. My own education and experience aside, I can't find a single professional chef or baker who prefers any form of margarine over good old-fashioned unsalted butter.
In fact, other than misinformed health nuts, the only people who actively advocate the use of margarine are the people who make it. The food magazines and cookbooks that cop out with the “butter or margarine” option only do so as a result of the butter backlash that began among health freaks in the 1970s. Because the fats in margarine are partially hydrogenated (i.e., not fully saturated), margarine pushers can claim it is "polyunsaturated" and market it as a healthy food.
Hydrogenation became popular in the US because hydrogenated oil doesn't spoil or become rancid as quickly as regular oil and therefore has a longer shelf life. And when it comes to marketing strategy, shelf life is where it's at. You can leave a stick of margarine sitting out for years and neither molds, insects, nor rodents will touch it. Only humans are stupid enough to eat the stuff.
Here's the definition of “margarine” from the Kitchen Dictionary” section of food.com: “A butter substitute made from a variety of different vegetable and other oils. The process of hydrogenation (used to make the margarine hard and spreadable) causes the margarine to produce trans-fatty acids in the body. These acids are known to cause a slew of problems: elevated cholesterol, hardening of the arteries, even cancer. Some margarines contain whey, and thus, are not dairy-free or lactose-free.”And here's a thought from Dr. Dane A. Roubos, D.C., B.Sc., originally published in Nexus Magazine: “To maintain good health it is important that we have the correct intake of omega fatty acids in our diets. Hydrogenated fats like margarine are non-foods with toxic effects and should be avoided at any cost.”
“Non-foods with toxic effects.” Isn't that a ringing product endorsement? Funny, I've never seen that one on a commercial for Blue Bonnet.
From a nutritional standpoint, the '50s and '60s were not good to us. An entire generation of Americans, hornswoggled by unscrupulous, dollar-driven ad men and their pseudo-scientific puppets, grew up believing that it was perfectly okay to consume gallons of sugary, syrupy soft drinks because doing so was “refreshing” and would make them part of a new cool, hip “in” crowd. We were led down a garden path that actually led out of the garden and into a chemistry lab where our food was salted, sugared, processed, and preserved beyond anything our ancestors would have even recognized as food. This was all done in the name of “modern convenience,” of course. Old-fashioned cooking was so passe, after all. It was all about “minute” rice and “instant” potatoes and macaroni and cheese from a box. Worse still, we liked it, or at least deluded ourselves into thinking we did. We so coated our taste buds with chemicals and preservatives that we actually thought the stuff we were heating up from cans and boxes and plastic packages was not only good for us, it was good tasting, too. That's why a man I know, a man brainwashed from birth by Madison Avenue's claims of margarine's health benefits and superior taste, won't have what he calls “that butter crap” in his house.
And now here we sit, obese and ridden with allergies, diabetes, cancer, and all manner of cardiac diseases, wondering how we got here. Thank God butter consumption is up: maybe people are finally learning something.
Look, as I said before, I'm not trying to tell anybody that butter is a health food. It's not. It's purely a saturated fat and every legitimate health organization on the planet recommends limiting your intake of saturated fat. But it's a natural fat. It was created by a cow, not a chemist. And if I'm going to die anyway, I'd rather be killed by Mother Nature than by the bastard step-child of a French chemist whose Frankenstein-like creation was developed in order to win a contest.
So butter me up another biscuit, Betsy, and make sure it's real butter. I don't want any of that margarine crap in my house.