Should You Eat Margarine?

| Aug 1, 1993

What's healthy?

For years you have been advised, "take care of your heart." One helpful way is to cut down on saturated fat and cholesterol in your meals. To comply with this advice, many Americans substituted margarine and stopped using butter.

Butter is rich in saturated fats and cholesterol; a type of fat also found in high amounts in fatty meats, fatty poultry and whole milk dairy products. High amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol are implicated in the development of heart disease.

Butter is churned from the cream found in whole milk which contains cholesterol and more saturated fat than margarine. Margarine is made by hydrogenating liquid vegetable oil. The hydrogenating process solidifies liquid oils so sticks, tubs, or tubes of margarine are made. More hydrogenation is needed to form the stick type than the softer types. Less hydrogenation is stated on the label as "partially hydrogenated."

Why are studies on margarine being ignored?

The danger of hydrogenating fats was studied and reported back in 1974 by Fred A. Kummerow at the University of Illinois. The federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology reported, "margarine is a health hazard." Unfortunately, the media did not highlight this information on the pages of newspapers or television programs. The findings of his study indicated that a form of fat present in margarine may indeed present a higher risk for heart disease than foods containing saturated fat and cholesterol, like butter.

For eight months, the researchers fed different types of diets to groups of swine. One of the conclusions reached was that the group of pigs eating the diet high in hydrogenated fat was more atherogenic than the groups receiving the cholesterol diet. Severity of clogged and hardened arteries was determined by performing autopsies on the pigs.

Pigs were chosen as the research specimens because the aorta arteries and heart of a pig are similar to those of a human in their response to cholesterol. The research team repeated the experiments several times and noted consistent results: the greatest degree of arterial hardening (which promotes heart disease) was found in the pigs who ate margarine based stock with their food.

Producers of some foods use hydrogenated fat to make their products more stable, so it appears fresher for a longer period of time. Unfortunately, during the hydrogenating process fatty acids called "trans" are produced. In liquid oil the native arrangement of fatty acids is the "cis" formation; during the process of hydrogenation, however, hydrogen atoms are added directly to the liquid oil and "trans" fatty acids are formed. The "trans" form of fatty acids is believed to actually increase coronary risk

In August, 1990, another study reported by Dutch researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine also concluded that eating hydrogenated fat increases coronary risk. The Dutch team reported that the "trans" fatty acids found in margarine and shortening, used to "stiffen" them so they can be used for spreading and baking, are especially harmful. At the end of the study, participants who ate the hydrogenated fat diet presented higher LDL cholesterol (bad) and lower HDL cholesterol (good) than those who did not.

In a new study reported in the Lancet this year, we have further questioning of the wisdom of continuing to eat hydrogenated foods. A team of researchers working with Dr. Willet reported findings from Harvard Nurses Health Study. A study conclusion indicates that "trans" fatty acids in foods such as margarine, solid vegetable shortening, some fried foods and foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil raise blood cholesterol significantly. High cholesterol levels increase the risk of heart deterioration.

What do these studies mean for the person with diabetes?

In 1990, the National Academy of Sciences communicated that consumption of current levels of "trans" fatty acids in the American diet is safe. Conclusions by the Academy are based on, "normally healthy Americans," and not on the special nature of people with diabetes, who are known to be at higher risk of heart disease.

As for people with diabetes who wish to find out just how many foods contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats, take a walk down your supermarket aisles and read the labels. Some brands in each of these types of foods are best avoided: salad dressings, prepared chips, bacon bits, sauce packets for meats, poultry, and fish, barbecue sauce, butter substitutes, muffins, breads, cookies, crackers, baby formula, snack pack puddings, flavored dried potatoes, diet meals, liquid diet drinks, frozen meals, instant soups, modified cheese, canned soups, custard mixes, dried chow mein noodles, the list goes on. Read the label before making your choice.

True, foods such as margarine, shortenings, and other foods made with hydrogenated fat usually provide a lower saturated fat and cholesterol alternative. But should people with diabetes substitute a different harmful fat for the ones we are avoiding? I would like very much to hear from persons who have satisfactorily solved the problem of what to spread on bread, especially at breakfast; and any other suggestions which avoid adding saturated or hydrogenated fat to the diet. I will report your recipes and suggestions in a future issue. Please write to: NNI Diabetes Seminars, 2519 N Hayden Island Drive, Portland Oregon 97217, Att. Kate Jones and Jean Rifkin.

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