As always, the first question to ask is, ‘Are margarines or margarine spreads naturally occurring foods?’ The answer is absolutely not. While starting out as a natural product, margarines are artificially manipulated and highly processed. Synthetic or isolated natural ingredients are added by food technologists for the purpose of trying to control specific aspects of health such as cholesterol. However, trying to control individual aspects of health in isolation is a recipe for disaster as our bodies work holistically. All parts are interrelated.
Adding health-promoting substances such as plant-based sterols to completely unnatural, laboratory-made products does not make them healthy. In fact, while plant sterols may help reduce cholesterol, they can also block the absorption of important fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin A and vitamin D.
Years ago, scientists felt the saturated fats in foods like butter were bad for our hearts, so they made polyunsaturated margarines as a supposedly healthier alternative. Unfortunately, these polyunsaturated fats were found to be easily oxidised and thus subjected us to far greater free radical damage. It is largely oxidative damage to cholesterol rather than just having high cholesterol that is associated with the harmful plaquelike substances linked to conditions such as heart disease. The problem was merely shifted not solved. The same is happening again. These days we know a lot more about the great harm done to people’s health from trans fats. Trans fats have been extensively used in margarines until recently, and are still found in high quantities in products such as fried foods, breakfast bars and pastries. Trans fats are fats formed when liquid oils are turned into solid fats through hydrogenation—for example, when vegetable oils are hardened into margarine or shortening. These are called ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oils’ or PHVO’s. PHVO’s are seen as extremely dangerous because they raise our levels of the supposedly ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) and lower our levels of good cholesterol (HDL). They have also been closely associated with many serious diseases, particularly cardiovascular disease6, stroke and type 2 diabetes. PHVO’s are totally artificial and are manufactured for the express purpose of … wait for it … helping food manufacturers increase the shelf life of their products!
Dr Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the US Centre for Science in the Public Interest, says, ‘Unlike fats that occur in nature, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (PHVO) is totally artificial and absolutely unnecessary in the food supply’. In one of the all-time great quotes he wisely adds, ‘Food processing companies should worry less about the shelf life of their products and more about the shelf life of their customers. Getting rid of PHVO is probably the single easiest, fastest, cheapest way to save tens of thousands of lives each year’.
Thanks to the tremendous work done by people like Dr Jacobson, we consumers—and food manufacturers—are now realising the gross danger to our health that trans fats present. As a result, their inclusion in food is being reduced in most countries around the world. They are actually banned beyond minimal limits in countries like Denmark and Switzerland and must be labelled in the US. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, such restrictions are yet to be implemented in Australia.
Even today’s so-called healthy margarines or margarine spreads, the ones without trans fats and with added ‘cholesterol-lowering plant phenols’, are not naturally occurring and should not be seen as healthy. Just take a look at the ingredients list and see all the synthetic antioxidants, thickeners, preservatives and colours that have been added!
So what should you do if you have high cholesterol? One suggestion would be to learn from the peoples of Hunza, Vilcabamba and Abkhasia as well as the millions of rural folk who have lived in countries like China and Japan. In such places, where a predominantly whole food, plant-based diet has been eaten, the problems of high cholesterol are basically… zero. That’s nil. None. Zilch. High cholesterol is almost entirely a Western lifestyle phenomenon, strongly associated with stress and high intakes of animal foods. Although food manufacturers and drug companies don’t want you to know this, lowering cholesterol is not difficult and can be done entirely naturally. How? By simply reducing stress levels, eating fewer animal products (particularly red meat) and consuming a predominantly plant-based, whole food diet. Plant foods not only contain zero cholesterol but also actively balance out high cholesterol. Instead of margarine, use things like avocado, minimally processed nut butters and extra virgin olive oil for spreads and dips. Natural wisdom suggests that we should not eat products manufactured in scientific laboratories to artificially reduce what is only ‘high’ because of a poor diet or lifestyle. Keep it simple. Eat natural foods.
* Extract from Mark’s Ancient Wisdom for Modern Health Book 1