This topic appears to be surrounded by a lot of confusion (like pretty much everything in the health world).
All the "experts" disagree and we are constantly given conflicting ideas about what is healthy and what should be avoided.
I've always been told, whether correct or otherwise, that Margarine is unhealthy. Margarine - bad! Margarine is highly processed, highly fattening, with absolutely no health properties and should be avoided by all.
Have I ever researched this? No. Did it ever feel illogical to me that Margarine was probably not a health food? No.
BUT - going vegan - I had buttery needs. If I wanted to bake a cake - I needed a butter stand in! If I wanted to have butter and jam on toast - I needed a butter to spread and melt deliciously onto my sourdough. Lucky for me - there are about a million butter alternatives these days. There are sunflower spreads, soy spreads and Earth Balance for all you lucky Americans out there. Here in the UK - you can buy dairy-free spreads in any supermarket or go to a health food shop and find an array of healthy-looking, well-packaged options that labels swear to high heaven are good for you.
So... these aren't Margarine....
Margarine is.... Margarine. These are.... not?
I've absolutely never thought about this. I have never wondered what the difference is. As someone who tries to question pretty much everything, it felt strange that I'd never thought to ask myself this question. Are these spreads any better than basic, old school Margarine? Or is it the same thing in different packaging?
Margarine - The Facts
I found reading about Margarine and how it came to exist far too fascinating. If you have a spare ten minutes, do go and read the entire Wikipedia page. I know, I know.. "Wikipedia" groan ... BUT it is a great, compact source that contained pretty much everything I wanted to know.
Margarine Wikipedia Page
Okay - let's start with the basics.
What the Hell is Margarine?
You came here for facts, I know. And facts I will give you, but delivered via angry, rant-like reporting. Hope that's cool. Head to the Wikipedia page for a non-bias version.
Margarine is a Frankenstein food - a mesh of animal fats (yup! Not necessarily vegan, people!) or vegetable fats or both, that is cooled or heated depending on the fat, hardened by adding hydrogen (and saturated fat as a result) and DYED before being packaged, distributed and sold. Old school Margarine survived the modern world by undergoing lots of makeovers to reduce its health risks (consumption has been linked to Cardiovascular disease among others) and seem more appealing to the masses. This included finding a new way to solidify the fats instead of using hydrogen, reducing levels of saturated fat and, in later decades, adding "go to" buzz ingredients like Omegas or Agave or Anything-Healthy-People-Like.
And with these makeovers Margarine becomes... what?
You guessed it .... what we call any kind of Vegan Butter? Boom.
The following from Wikipedia is a very concise explanation of how Margarine is made and segues nicely into "Are Vegan Butters Just Margarine???!!!" (Spoiler - yes they are)
"The oil is pressed from seeds and refined. It is then blended with solid fat. If no solid fats are added to the vegetable oils, the latter undergo a full or partial hydrogenation process to solidify them. The resulting blend is mixed with water, citric acid, carotenoids, vitamins and milk powder. Emulsifiers such as lecithin help disperse the water phase evenly throughout the oil, and salt and preservatives are also commonly added. This oil and water emulsion is then heated, blended, and cooled. The softer tub margarines are made with less hydrogenated, more liquid, oils than block margarines. Three types of margarine are common:
Any of that sound familiar? When I read this my dread was solidified. That first dot point had the key words I was looking for: "sunflower, soybean...or olive oil." Those are essentially what my Vegan Butters are made of. Meaning they are technically... Margarine.
Vegan Butters 101
"Vegan Butters" have a million forms, brands and distinctions, each with their own list of pros and cons.
Now we know WHAT Margarine actually is and have a definition - can this definition be applied to, Earth Balance, for example?
I go straight to Earth Balance because in my mind they are one of the top brands on the market and seem genuinely invested in health and welfare. If any kind of vegan butter is different to Margarine, I figure they're my best bet. Also Alicia Silverstone is their ambassador .... she only wants what is best for us. Right?!
Luckily, I didn't have to dig too deep at all. The answer is so blatantly obvious that Earth Balance answered for me, whether they wanted to or not.
Their first "Q" on their company FAQ Page is: "Why isn't Earth Balance Just Called Margarine"? Thanks guys!
What do they say? See for yourself -
So, what are your thoughts on that?
I like a bit of a rant, as you may know.... but I also like to think about things in a very BASIC and LOGICAL way. Shall we just break that answer down a bit? They start of by saying "for some really important reasons", meaning they are going to give me some really good, key differences, right? Can't wait.
Their claim of 0g trans fat is only accurate because of their first point - no hydrogenated oils... thanks, got that one already. No trans fat will be a direct result of not using hydrogen to harden your product... and that's great, don't get me wrong. But that, plus the absence of preservatives or emulsifiers is literally the only difference. Oh, sorry, I forgot about the "award winning flavor".....
That sentence should not be present when trying to distinguish your product from its original source. It's completely irrelevant and stating it makes you look a bit foolish. (In my opinion).
Earth Balance very much tout that their product is healthy and I want to believe them. I'm much more inclined to believe them, obviously! I want to make vegan cakes and have a butter option!
So - what are their claims?
Can I start of by saying (again) sentences like "all you have to worry about enjoying the irresistible flavor" don't do them ANY favors in my highly skeptical opinion. If your product is so good - don't resort to bubble-gum talk and let the ingredients speak for themselves. Properly educate me on how your food affects my body, without fluffing it up.
Not an easy task, I know. Especially with a marketing team. But honestly, when I read that stuff it just makes me suspicious.
So - the claims. Well their first claim is Organic. Cool. I'm down with that, no issues. Second claim - cholesterol. Look peeps - any person who switches to a dairy-free spread will automatically lower their cholesterol, so you can't claim that one. Cholesterol only exists in animal products - any animal-product free purchase will be a cholesterol win, whether that's drinking a galleon of Olive Oil or eating twenty packets of Oreo biscuits. (Please never do either of those things). This is a point for all Margarine and all dairy-free spreads, but doesn't equate to being GOOD for you. It means it DOESN'T contain cholesterol. Not that it contains Cholesterol-fighting-elixir. Does that make sense? The absence of something negative doesn't create a positive. Spinach isn't healthy because it DOESN'T have sugar all over it. It's healthy because it's spinach. Down?
I'm happy to do more research on this one... maybe there is something that genuinely helps reduce cholesterol on a level other than simply cutting it out, but I'm not convinced yet. **More research needed.
Their third claim - the presence of all essential Omega-3s. Okay, no issue - I'm sure they are in there, but reading that after reading the Wikipedia page was a comical experience. They've crawled right into the trap of trying to create a health food out of a tub of fat. Not the easiest task, but well played. I think the most logical option at this point is to go somewhere else for my Omegas... A original source without all the extras? (FYI: Walnuts and Flaxseed are the best sources.)
Finally - Soy Protein? Again... I think I'll just get it from a better source. The promise of protein shouldn't be a reason to consume Vegan Butter. I'll go for some beans, greens or tofu, cheers.
Am I being too hard on Vegan Butters? Honestly, I don't think so. I'm not saying these foods are BAD for you necessarily. I've intentionally not answered that question and wouldn't feel comfortable attempting to. I'm no health expert, merely an interested spectator who tries to do their best.
As always - I think we need to just try and know WHAT we're eating. When looking at Dairy-free spreads, just be aware these products don't have A LOT to separate them. Yes, there are differences - Earth Balance and other Vegan Butters are lovely, BETTER versions of Margarine, no question. They've made improvements, they've made the original concept much healthier and better for our bodies than old-school Margarine. But at the end of the day, is it something that will do us real good? Improve our health? Be a conscious addition to our diet?
I lean towards "no." I lean towards - Vegan butter should be something that is nice to have in the house for when you want to make a vegan cake and not have to pretend it's good for you.
It's okay to not be perfect. If you want to spread some Vegan Butter on your toast - go for it. BUT - don't live under the illusion it's packing your body with protein and Omegas and lowering your cholesterol. It may be doing these things on some level, but if health is your primary concern - maybe top your toast with some avocado instead?
Delicious, delicious avocado.
I don't try and live perfectly. Of course not. I like having a vegan brownie now and then, I like having a drink, I like plenty of things that may not be keeping me in perfect health.
BUT - I like to be educated and do my best. With this in mind, I will keep my Vegan Butter consumption to a minimum in the future. And I will definitely go for the brands that do THEIR best.
Overall - I will stick with the whole food source - an avocado, smashed up, with some lemon juice. What more could you want? That tastes WAY better than Soy Spread anyway.
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