6 Reasons To Avoid Margarine

Margarine has its roots as a cheaper alternative to butter, which won't surprise anyone who has ever compared butter and margarine prices in the dairy aisle. After World War II, marketing teams heavily pushed margarine to consumers; but consumers considered it an inferior product (per a 2017 review from Contemporary British History). Sales did not take off until the 1980's when rebranding efforts cast margarine in a new light: a health food. Margarine producers touted it as a plant-based alternative to butter based on mounting evidence that ingesting animal products were linked to heart disease. They improved its flavor and spreadability because people won't buy food that is (supposedly) good for them — they want it to taste good, too.

Since then, margarine has gone through a transformation. But the Harvard Medical School in 2020 claimed margarine is not healthier than butter. Some types of margarine might be less healthy than butter. Margarine may increase the risk of several chronic diseases and doesn't fit into the "eat real food" movement prevalent today. For these reasons, and more below, you may want to avoid margarine.

Margarine is highly processed

Many people are trying to consume more whole foods and fewer processed foods. (You've probably heard the term "whole food, plant-based diet" lately.) But even people who want to keep eating meat have been avoiding processed foods to improve their health. Margarine is highly processed, so it has no place in a whole foods diet.

Margarine comes from hydrogenating oil (per Medical News Today). Hydrogenation is a chemical process that turns fats that are liquid at room temperature into fats that are solid at room temperature by adding hydrogen atoms to oil molecules. To make margarine, manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil to create the sticks and tubs that are familiar to us. According to a 2021 review paper from Food Research International, margarine manufacturers can vary the fat percentage in margarine to make it more spreadable — like the tubs of margarine for your toast — or harder, like the sticks used for cooking and baking. Either way, margarine is not a naturally occurring product but a food made in a factory by a chemical reaction.

Margarine contains many additives

Not only is margarine produced by a chemical reaction in a manufacturing plant, but it also contains a lot of additives that affect its shelf life and taste. Margarine contains more than hydrogenated oil — and that's where the additives come into play.

According to Oklahoma State University (OSU), margarine must be at least 80% fat. Margarine's fat source can come from an animal, vegetable, or fat from an approved marine species — like fish oil or whale. It must contain water, milk, milk products, or protein. There are a variety of approved proteins, including whey and casein, which are both dairy proteins (per Healthline), and soy protein isolate, which comes from soybeans (per the National Cancer Institute).

According to OSU, manufacturers may also add vitamins, salt, sweeteners, color additives, flavor compounds, and emulsifiers to adjust the taste and texture of margarine. The manufacturer may whip it with nitrogen or increase the liquid oil content to make margarine easy to spread even when it has been refrigerated. The manufacturer can also add preservatives to extend its shelf life. While these modifications make it more spreadable, improve its taste, or add to its nutritional profile, they also take margarine farther away from its natural origins as an oil. Not everyone feels comfortable putting all these additives into their body.

Margarine contains trans fats

One significant downside of the manufacturing process used to produce margarine is that it creates a type of fat known as trans fats. According to the American Chemical Society, there are two types of fats: trans fats and cis fats. While they are similar in structure, there are vital differences in their shapes that affect how the human body processes them.

All fats and oils are composed of chains of carbon and hydrogen molecules. Both cis and trans fats have double bonds between some of their carbon atoms. Trans fats, which are produced by adding hydrogen to a liquid oil, have hydrogen atoms on opposite sides of those double bonds. Cis fats, which are naturally occurring, have hydrogen atoms on the same side of those double bonds. That difference is small but critical.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, most margarine contains trans fats, though stick margarine is more likely than tub margarine to have them. The trans fats found in margarine and other hydrogenated oils have been linked to an increase in bad cholesterol, a decrease in good cholesterol, and an increased risk of developing insulin resistance (per Medical News Today). Although the Food and Drug Administration banned trans fats in the United States (per CNN), they're still in some products. Companies can legally label foods with 0.5 grams or fewer trans fats per serving as "trans-fat free." If you eat multiple servings of margarine each day, you consume multiple grams of trans fats.

Margarine may contribute to cardiovascular disease

The trans fats in margarine as well as its high level of saturated fat means that margarine may have a negative effect on heart health. Several studies have linked butter and margarine to mortality from cardiovascular disease (CVD) and coronary heart disease (CHD). According to the American Heart Association, CVD is an umbrella term for many conditions, including atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.

CHD is the leading cause of death in the United States and affects roughly 18.2 million Americans (per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute). CHD develops when the arteries that feed the heart cannot provide enough oxygen-rich blood to the heart. The buildup of cholesterol in the coronary arteries can cause coronary heart disease.

The trans fats in margarine can increase levels of LDL cholesterol and lower levels of HDL cholesterol: This combined effect can contribute to poor heart health (per Medical News Today). Evidence of margarine's impact on the heart comes from a 2021 study published in BMC Medicine. Their study found a link between butter and margarine consumption and deaths from cardiovascular disease. In contrast, a 2020 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that people who consumed more fat from olive oil than margarine, butter, mayonnaise, or dairy fat had a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.

Margarine may contribute to Alzheimer's disease and dementia

The trans fats found in margarine may affect more than just your heart. These fats can also affect your brain and cognitive health. According to CNN, people who consume trans fats may be 50% to 75% more likely to develop dementia from Alzheimer's disease or other causes. Scientists who followed more than 1,600 Japanese men and women for ten years found that those with higher levels of trans fats in their blood were more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, dementia is the loss of memory and other cognitive abilities that affects daily life. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia, and it is progressive. People with late-stage Alzheimer's experience confusion, disorientation, and changes in mood and behavior. They may become suspicious about their caregivers and family members. Eventually, people with Alzheimer's lose more than cognitive functions, finding difficulty speaking, eating, and moving their bodies.

Margarine may contribute to Type 2 diabetes

Diabetes is an illness that affects millions of Americans. There are two types of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2 (per the American Diabetes Association). People with Type 1 diabetes don't have enough insulin in their blood or produce no insulin at all. Individuals with Type 2 diabetes produce insulin but cannot use it properly (also known as insulin resistance). Insulin's job is to shuttle sugar from the blood into the body's cells, so people with diabetes have trouble controlling their blood sugar levels. Of the 37 million Americans who have diabetes, roughly 95% have Type 2 diabetes, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Many factors contribute to Type 2 diabetes, and diet is one of them. An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study from 2015 found that replacing margarine with olive oil reduced the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in American women. In 2019, PLoS Medicine found that pregnant women who reduced their consumption of margarine, butter, cream, and red meat while increasing their consumption of nuts, olive oil, fish, and beans reduced their risk of gestational diabetes. Women who develop gestational diabetes are at increased risk for developing Type 2 diabetes later in life (via Mayo Clinic).

There are plenty of options if you want to avoid margarine

Due to the potential downsides of margarine consumption, it might be best to avoid it when you can. But giving up margarine doesn't mean you have to give up on flavor. There are other foods and condiments you can use in place of margarine.

If you typically bake with margarine, you can use coconut oil, nut oils, or vegetable oils like olive oil instead. Whichever substitute you choose, keep the measurement the same. For example, if your cookie recipe calls for one cup of margarine, use one cup of the substitute of your choice. You may need to experiment with your recipes to find the best substitute. Since butter and coconut oil are both solid at room temperature, they may produce baked goods with the closest consistency to the original recipe. However, olive oil and coconut oil change the flavor of baked goods. For a vegan baking approach, you can substitute applesauce or pureed prunes: These substitutes work best for cakes and quick bread because they produce a soft, cake-like texture.

If you top your baked potatoes with margarine as a condiment, try sour cream or salsa. Dip bread in olive oil. For English muffins, toast, and bagels, choose jelly, butter, or avocado. Once you try this delicious Avocado Toast — you'll never miss the margarine!