Food and Drink: A fat lot of good for you: Is soft margarine really healthier than butter? Joanna Blythman is unconvinced

FOR YEARS I have had an attitude problem with margarine. I find it hard to see how such a heavily processed and synthetic concoction can be better (ie, healthier) than a natural one such as butter. It is a position I have had to defend. 'How can you, a food writer, still eat butter?' demanded friends convinced that a tub of soft margarine in the fridge is essential for a healthy lifestyle.

I vividly remember a meeting with a spokesman for the Coronary Prevention Group before a radio interview. I had dared to question the margarine orthodoxy by asking him how a food which was refined, deodorised, bleached, hardened, then mixed with emulsifiers, antioxidants and colourings could possibly be recommended by any organisation with an interest in the nation's health.

This was heresy. However, if you, too, cannot swallow the advice that margarine is good for you - or at least better for you than butter - you will be interested to know that the Fat Wars debate has entered a new phase. And, curiously, the latest assault on the margarine barons has come from within their own ranks.

'Most margarines are not as healthy as butter,' was the stark assertion that heralded a recent European promotion of Vitaquell, a margarine that has been on sale in health-food shops in the UK for 15 years and in Germany since the mid-Fifties. The manufacturer, the family-owned firm of Fauser, bases its claim that Vitaquell is 'probably the best margarine in the world, and certainly your healthiest choice' upon its radically different production method.

It is widely acknowledged that hard margarines are none too healthy, and a growing body of medical opinion also implicates the 'soft' margarines - even those claiming to be rich in polyunsaturated fats - because of their trans-fatty acid content.

'Trans-fatty acids,' according to the results of a large trial conducted in the United States in 1992 and reported in the Lancet earlier this year, 'formed by the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils to produce margarine and vegetable shortening, increase the ratio of plasma low-density-

lipoprotein to high-density-lipoprotein cholesterol . . .

'These findings support the thesis that consumption of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils may contribute to the occurrence of coronary heart disease.'

Pick up at random a packet of biscuits, cakes, a ready-meal or instant pudding, and you will probably find hydrogenated (chemically hardened) vegetable fat on the list of ingredients. Many of us may be consuming substantial amounts of hidden fat from these sources. If we are now to believe that hydrogenated vegetable fat is linked to heart disease, this is a major issue of public concern, not least because many people actively seek out products made with vegetable as opposed to animal fats.

Every episode in the great Fat and Health debate is complicated by 'experts' weighing in on opposing sides, and the pros and cons of hydrogenated vegetable fats and of the saturated fats found in butter are sure to be disputed. Fauser goes so far as to say that most commercial soft margarines are actually more damaging to your health than the animal fats in butter. It bases this on the argument about trans-fats, and on the dictum of wholefood nutrition that food should be as natural as possible.

The trans-fat arguments can make your head spin, but the concept of natural, unadulterated food is readily grasped. Vitaquell, says Fauser, 'is the only margarine where the healthful effects have not been ruined by the chemical and physical assaults on their integrity'.

The method for the manufacture of most commercial margarines is highly complex. Oil seeds are cleaned, milled, steam-heated and hot-pressed using chemical solvents to produce a high yield. The extracted oil is then filtered by centrifuge, de-gummed using phosphate, neutralised using sodium carbonate or bicarbonate, washed, then bleached and deodorised in a steamer.

The Vitaquell claims rest on the simplicity of its manufacture. It is made by cleaning the oil seeds, milling, then cold- pressing them, avoiding the need for chemical solvents and the subsequent cleaning up and neutralising. The distinction is similar to that between cold-pressed virgin olive oil and 'refined' oil.

Oils which are refined, according to Fauser, no longer conform to the principle of wholefood nutrition. 'Bleaching, for example, is a serious intervention in the natural structure of the oils because it removes a great number of the accessory factors - pigments, carotenoids, sterols - which are important for nutrition. The final product is a neutral-tasting oil robbed of its natural character and valuable substances.'

All very persuasive. But we have been subjected to such a barrage of advice in recent years that it is hard to know who to believe. Oh, for some independent experts to arbitrate. Unless and until the debate is finally settled, we must make common- sense decisions about the fats we eat against a background of conflicting commercial interests and contradictory advice.

I am attracted to the principle of wholefood nutrition: that you should try to eat food in as natural a state as possible. This approach leads one away from heavily processed or refined foods and towards the use of unadulterated raw materials. I am further impressed by a growing consensus among international experts that sound nutrition depends on a healthy eating pyramid, with carbohydrate foods such as pasta, bread and cereals at its base, liberal helpings of fresh fruit and vegetables, substantially less meat, fish, cheese and eggs, and with a minimum of hard fat or white sugar.

Where might margarine fit in? And is Vitaquell a significant nutritional or gastronomic advance? I confess I was sufficient impressed by Fauser's arguments, and sufficiently curious, to buy some. I found it bland, though not exactly unpalatable, and free from that greasy, mouth-coating effect that I tend to associate with other margarines.

If my doctor, on the evidence of my family history of heart disease, should ever ban butter, I would reluctantly acquiesce. But I would opt instead for good olive oil, or for plain bread. As for margarine, Vitaquell or otherwise, give me a break.

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