“I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better” (Margarine fears)

FREDBUTTER

These days, it seems that even the most trivial item can become the object of an unwarranted freakout. This includes how we make our English muffins tastier, for a diatribe against margarine has made its way around the Internet. In addressing the faux yellow condiment, the message gets a few items right, but it mostly contains whoppers and misinformation.

It starts with the assertion that margarine was invented as a means to fatten turkeys, but that the concocted food caused the birds to die en masse. Hoping to recoup some of the money lost from the stricken livestock, the farmers added food coloring to the white substance and passed it off as butter to the unsuspecting masses.

In truth, margarine has nothing to do with turkey, or Turkey for that matter, but with France. Napoleon III offered a prize to anyone who could produce a viable, affordable butter substitute that could be consumed by peasants and soldiers. The winner was a mix of beef fat, saltwater, milk, and margaric acid, which gave the nascent substance its name. Today’s margarine is normally composed of refined vegetable oil, water, and sometimes milk.

I have written before that there is enough amazing about science that there’s no reason to make up cool stuff. For instance, humans having landed a probe on a comet is more captivating to me than is pursuing proof that some unknown critters constructed a face on Mars. In the same way, there is enough genuine ghastly gastroenterological unpleasantness that there is no need to fabricate any.

For example, trans fat is legitimately a food boogeyman that increases the chance of Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, liver disorders, and much more. It was prevalent in margarine for years and were that still the norm rather than the exception, the railing against margarine would be justified.

But the key issue is how much trans fat margarine (or any other food) contains. Avoiding all margarine because of the trans fat issue would be like going naked because one dislikes hats. Many brands, including I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, no longer contain trans fat, and that’s usually the case for margarine that comes in tubs or in liquid form.

Another assertion from the screed is that butter has been around for centuries, whereas margarine has been around for less than 100 years. The math is off on that, as margarine dates to the 1860s. But the more relevant point is that how long something has been around is unrelated to its other attributes. Trying to score this as a point for butter over margarine is to commit the Appeal to Tradition fallacy.

The bulk of the rant is a series of unsubstantiated claims that are unsupported by any documentation, evidence, or studies. The claims include: Margarine triples the risk of coronary disease, quintuples the risk of cancer, increases bad cholesterol while lowering good cholesterol, lowers the quality of breast milk, decreases immune and insulin response, increases the risk of heart disease in women by more than 50 percent, and that eating butter increases the absorption of nutrients from other foods.

The claims against margarine would only be true if the specific brand is high in trans fat, and again, that would be true of any food. The boast about butter melts like, well, butter, when examined. Harriet Hall at Science Based Medicine wrote, “Where did this claim come from? I found no evidence to support it. Perhaps they were thinking about the fact that some vitamins are fat-soluble, but that would apply to margarine as well as to butter.”

Another baseless assertion is that margarine will not attract flies because it has no nutritional value. Any food, by nature, has nutritional value, and while I doubt there is any data on whether winged pests cotton to vegetable oil spreads, I see no evidence for the assertion that they don’t. Feel free to conduct your own experiment and let me know the results.

Like other good fearmongering pieces, this one contains a dose of chemophobia, this time in the form of a caps-friendly alarm: “Margarine is but ONE MOLECULE away from being PLASTIC and shares 27 ingredients with PAINT.”

First, as Hall noted, this is false. She wrote, “Plastics are polymers and completely unrelated to anything in margarine. Paint doesn’t contain any of the ingredients in margarine.”

But even if true, this would be pointless anyway. Any change, not matter how small, in the chemical makeup of a substance can alter its safety, impact, and use. One oxygen atom is all that separates water from hydrogen peroxide, but this would not be a sound reason to drink the latter while using the former to disinfect a scraped finger.

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