‘Natural' is not necessarily good
This letter is in response to a recent article in the Yuma Sun by "foodie" Karla Billdt who wrote about butter and its natural attributes that make it a better choice than margarine.
For some reason there is a very common misconception or fad, especially in this country, regarding things that are "natural." The term "natural" seems to convey a right or non-evil and all-true goodness.
For the most part, and for simplicity, I imagine most would agree with me in defining natural as something that is found in nature that does not need human assistance to occur. I know this isn’t a perfect definition but this is what seems rational to me when I think of something being natural.
Unfortunately, not everything that is natural is good for you, let alone safe.
A colleague of mine on this topic would ask his students, given that snake venom is natural then why do people and many other animals have fatal issues with it? Spoiled food is natural, so it’s OK to eat, right? Bacterial infections are natural so it should be OK to let them fester. It’s only natural, right?
Is butter natural? Can it be easily found in nature? Do cows leave "butter" pies on farm pastures? I would say no. As described in the aforementioned article, butter is produced through a series of steps by us to essentially refine a product that consists of mainly butterfat and a smaller percentage of water.
Some of its amazing attributes include a wonderful flavor and flavor enhancer, its ability to stay solid at room temperature and as a useful caloric byproduct from the dairy industry. A few negative attributes are its high concentrations of saturated fats and high caloric properties, which don’t help in the sedentary and calorie rich American lifestyle.
Given this information about butter. how does margarine stack up? Until recently in the U.S., margarine was made from plant oils (e.g. canola, etc.), which are rich in unsaturated fats, and saturating them with hydrogen to make them more similar to saturated fats.
This process generates a product that has a similar taste and flavor enhancing property to butter, but with the added benefit of being spreadable at cooler temperatures, a longer shelf life and sometimes being cheaper to produce.
Unfortunately, hydrogenation doesn’t completely saturate all the fats from the oils. It generates large amount of trans fats which are similar to unsaturated fats but are different in that our bodies cannot properly store or break them down and they have been shown to drastically increase the chances of getting coronary heart disease.
Current margarine production in the U.S. (it varies in other countries) blends the usual plant oils with milk or other sources of saturated fats to achieve a similar product but without any significant level of the trans fats.
So which is better?
At this point it seems to be a matter of personal preference (i.e., health reason, taste, costs, etc.). When making butter at home, store bought heavy whipping cream will typically not be able to produce the cultured butter Karla Billdt described because it has been pasteurized (heated to kill potentially dangerous bacteria and other microbes) while fresh skimmed cream has not. After all cultured butter is just bacteria fermented butter.
Margarine is more manipulated in its production than butter but just because something is manipulated doesn’t automatically guarantee an increase in toxicity. Both margarine and butter are not great sources of vitamins, but hopefully no one is relying on them for that purpose. And both are dense sources of calories in our current calorie-abundant lifestyles.
FRANCISCO VILLA, PhD