Let’s go back to the 1970s. If you’ve still got a pair of purple bell-bottoms in your closet, put ‘em on … assuming you can fit into them. Comfy? Okay. Time to head down Memory Lane.
If you’re my age or older, you probably remember this commercial for Blue Bonnet margarine:
As a marketing pitch, I guess it worked pretty well. Heck, everyone knows the French are persnickety about their gourmet food. If margarine is good enough for them, it ought to be good enough for ordinary Americans. (Amazingly, the French continued cooking with butter, despite this demonstration.)
But maybe French chefs are a little too effeminate and snooty to convince you to give up that artery-clogging butter. So let’s hear it from a real man’s man:
See? Even real guys are willing to give up all that artery-clogging butter. But wait … it’s the 1970s. We already had our first Earth Day. Shouldn’t we embracing natural foods? Well, fear not. Here’s the margarine commercial I remember best of all:
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Chiffon margarine tastes so much like butter, even Mother Nature can’t tell the difference. So stop clogging your arteries with all that perfectly natural butter – industrial food is here to save you!
You may have noticed the singer’s careful diction in the Chiffon jingle: If you think it’s butter, but IT’S NOT, it’s Chiffon. As I recall, the diction wasn’t quite so careful in the jingle’s first version. The result was a generation of youngsters cracking each other up by singing it exactly as we heard it: If you think it’s butter, but it’s SNOT, it’s Chiffon.
I believe our version of the jingle was closer to the truth. Here’s how you make butter:
- Milk a cow.
- Skim off the cream.
- Add salt.
- Churn the cream until it’s thick and chunky and tastes awesome.
That’s a food Mother Nature would indeed recognize. So how is margarine made? Well, that depends on who you ask. One pro-margarine site describes the process this way:
- Farmers grow seeds.
- The seeds are harvested.
- The seeds are warmed and crushed to extract the oils.
- Other ingredients are added to keep the margarine fresh.
- Color and flavor are added.
- The mixture is cooled to make a smooth margarine spread – perfect for cooking, baking or spreading on your sandwich.
Heck, that doesn’t sound too bad. Gather up some seeds grown right out there in the Great Outdoors, warm them by the wood stove, crush them to extract the oil, flavor it, cool it, and you’ve got margarine. No wonder Mother Nature couldn’t tell the difference.
Now here’s a slightly more detailed description:
- Farmers grow seeds.
- The seeds are harvested.
- The seeds are crushed to extract some of the oil.
- The rest of the oil is extracted by mixing the seeds with hexane, a chemical solvent.
- The hexane is (supposedly) all removed.
- The oil is pumped full of hydrogen gas and nickel powder. (Even the margarine makers know hydrogenated oils are a tough sell these days, so they may skip this step. I don’t know what, if anything, has replaced it.)
- The remaining oil is subjected to heat and high-pressure CO2 gas.
- The oil is mixed with sodium hydroxide and passed through a centrifuge.
- The oil is mixed with water and passed through another centrifuge. At this point, the margarine is a gray, speckled, oily mass that doesn’t smell so good. So …
- The oil is mixed with hydrated aluminum silicate that binds to and filters out the unwanted pigments.
- The mix is heated again and the oil is extracted.
- The oil is passed through a steam distillation chamber to remove unwanted odors.
- Yellow food coloring and artificial flavors are added.
Yummm … doesn’t that sound just like something Mother Nature would cook up in her kitchen?
Okay, maybe margarine isn’t totally natural. But the anti-fat hysterics still believe it’s better for us than butter. Here’s an example of their reasoning:
Because health experts recommend a diet lower in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol to reduce the risk of heart disease, margarine consumption has become a key part of dietary recommendations made by leading health organizations … Although some margarines contain more trans fat than butter, the total of trans and saturated fat is always less than the total for butter. The total for butter is much higher because of all the saturated fat that it contains.
Allow me to interpret: Thanks to our carefully-planned campaign to demonize saturated fats despite no evidence whatsoever that they’re actually harmful, experts now recommend that you avoid them. This proves we were right and you should eat margarine.
As I said in Fat Head, Mother Nature isn’t stupid. Human beings love the taste of fat because Mother Nature wanted us to eat fat. Our hair, skin, nails and brains depend on fat. Many of our hormones are made from saturated fats and cholesterol.
And while Mother Nature might not be fooled by Frankenfats like margarine, our bodies unfortunately are. Our taste buds sense what they think is saturated fat and tell us to eat it. Our cells grab the stuff and pack it into our cell walls, where saturated fat is supposed to go.
But of course, Frankenfat isn’t saturated fat and doesn’t do the same job. Saturated fats strengthen our cells and make our brains happy. Frankenfats weaken our cells, screw up our brain chemistry, and cause inflammation throughout our bodies – including the walls our arteries.
In retrospect, it’s amazing that doctors and scientists ever thought (and some still think) margarine is better for us than butter. A hundred years ago, Americans ate a lot more lard and butter, but few people died from heart disease. Most doctors didn’t even learn about heart disease in medical school; it wasn’t considered a big problem. (See the charts below.)
But by 1950, heart disease was the leading cause of death. That’s also the first year that margarine, which was becoming more and more popular, finally out-sold butter.
No, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature. Too bad we ever tried.