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Ethical Eating

Exploring a Container of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter

For years, margarine was hailed as a health food -- a non-fatty substitute for butter.

But with the discovery of trans-fat, that notion has changed. Now that consumers have cottoned on to the fact that their once-beloved "healthy" alternative to the saturated fat in butter is actually worse for their health, food service companies have found ways to get rid of the despised ingredient found in hydrogenated fats. But what does that mean for your health? Is margarine back on the healthy option list again?

According to the ingredients list on the back of a tub of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, the product no longer contains partially hydrogenated oils. This should be a good thing considering the process of partial hydrogenation was the main cause for the contribution of  

trans-fats. Partial hydrogenation has since been replaced by a process known as interesterification. According to nutritionist Andy Bellatti, "This process takes solid and liquid fats in vats, hydrogenates them, then breaks them down into their most basic form (triglycerides) and then manipulates or reconstructs them in order to achieve a desired consistency." This differs from partial hydrogenation in that interesterification takes whole saturated fats and blends them with unsaturated fats, rather than reconstructing the fat on a molecular level. This increases the amount of saturated fats (the ones responsible for high cholesterol), but gets rid of the ultra harmful trans fats. Confused? Probably time to dust off that old chemistry book.

In the case of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, this would be the soybean, palm, palm kernel, and canola oils listed on the back. 

While it sounds great that the food industry has found a way to rid themselves of the perils of trans-fat, this method may not be the best solution. To start, there is no evidence that interesterified oils have positive effects on health. In fact, according to Bellatti, a 2007 study conducted by American and Malaysian researchers concluded that "interesterified fats decrease HDL (good cholesterol), raise blood sugar, and suppress insulin secretion." 

Another concern with this product is the inclusion of palm oil. This fat, which is derived from trees in tropical rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, contains 50 percent saturated fat straight out of the tree. According to NYU nutritionist Marion Nestle, "most of the saturated fat in palm fruit oil is palmitic acid, a fat especially adept at raising cholesterol levels." Pair that with the devastation of rain forests and the impact its cultivation has on endangered species, you find out that is not exactly the most desirable product. 

Soybean oil is another item of concern on this ingredient list. While there are numerous studies on soy claiming either positive or negative effects on health, the soybean oil in processed foods such as margarine generally comes from genetically modified crops. As does the soy lecithin, which appears further down the label.

After the oils, the next ingredient is water. Fair enough. Then sweet cream buttermilk. Wouldn't you rather have butter? The additives come next; mono and diglycerides, both are emulsifiers. Natural and artificial flavor (milk), again additives. Potassium sorbate, an anitmicrobial growth inhibitor. Yum. Calcium disodium EDTA, which is said to be an environmental pollutant after breaking down. Citric acid, another preservative. Vitamin A palmitate is an artificial vitamin A additive. There's something that's artificially healthy. And last but not least, beta carotene, which gives the naturally gray colored margarine that fake butter color.

If you look to Michal Pollan, the famous food writer, who came up with the rule "don't eat anything with more than five ingredients," margarine would definitely be out of the question. At the end of the day, margarine is not a health food, and I doubt it ever will be. It is a product of food companies.The equivalent of a multi-million dollar science project. Yes, there are healthier and more ethically conscious versions of margarine available. Unless you cannot eat butter, what is the point? It is great to have the option of a non-dairy product out there. Many people cannot eat dairy and many people choose not to animal products period. For those individuals, I'm glad they have options. For everyone else, just eat butter.

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Sara Ventiera

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