Butter, margarine, conspiracy and evidence
A strange phone call
Yesterday a 92-year-old man, Raymond called me. He was following up after reading a special report on saturated fat and butter in our national newspaper.
He was a nice fellow. He apologised for his croaky voice as he currently has pneumonia and hadn’t slept much the night before.
He explained he was living in Papakura (South Auckland, New Zealand) with nursing assistance. He reckoned he is getting near the end of his life.
I asked how he felt about that.
“Oh, pretty good, it’s been quite a ride. I’ve been here, there and everywhere. I’ve done a lot. It’s been great. I’ll go out of this house feet first.”
Cool, I think to myself. I hope I’m in this space at that age. He’s been pretty healthy right up until now. Let’s hope the “live long drop dead” mantra plays out for old Raymond.
Anyway, he gets right onto his story.
“I ended up in England in the 1950s and 60s” he says.
“I was like a dog who grows up with pigs, I thought I was one. I thought I was a POM [general slightly derogatory term for Englishman used by Aussies and Kiwis], when in fact I was a New Zealander”.
He goes on to tell me he’s seen a lot. At this point I am sort of wondering about the point of the call.
He then explains the history of the wartime rationing and the butter rationing in England and with her allies. He explains the bulk butter purchasing agreement between Australia/New Zealand and England which finally finished in 1954.
All very interesting but so what?
Well it turns out he used to work in marketing, for a big pharmaceutical company. “Oh we used to send these doctors on holidays, ski trips, whatever. Off to Norway no problems. Just as long as they prescribed our drugs. It was and still probably is totally corrupt”. He explains flippantly.
Now here’s the bit which he really wanted to tell me.
“At the end of the bulk butter purchasing agreement, there was still a shortage of butter. Margarine had started to gain a hold. I was part of the marketing at Unilever by then and margarine was one of our most promising new products. Unilever wanted to create a science and plenty of public confusion around the notion that butter was not good for health. They wanted to drive their margarine business.”
“I just thought you wouldn’t know that, and you should” he explains.
That was the conversation. “Keep up the good work, and that’s all sonny” he adds. “I started life on a farm. There were five of us and we had a pound of butter for each of us every week. Five pounds a week. I still eat my pound each week”.
I thanked him politely for his call. I know I won’t speak to Raymond again.
I guess he just wanted to share his story.
There is no way of verifying any of this. It’s an old story, and we can’t change history. Understanding the different versions of it does help us understand where we are now and how to shape our future.
And…it’s cool that he called.
What is the evidence for condemning butter?
There’s the saturated fat thing, but that comes to nothing. Saturated fat is just being condemned – along with carbs and monounsaturated fats – because it isn’t polyunsaturated fats.
Sure butter often raises LDL cholesterol, and if you have heart disease and you can’t afford a more up-to-date and reliable test of your lipoprotein particles (size and/or number) this would be something to discuss with your cardiologist.
But again, saturated fat raises LDL but there’s no association between saturated fat as an independent factor and heart disease.
Polyunsaturated fat is associated with lower rates of heart disease deaths (but not total mortality) but can replace either saturated, monounsaturated fat, or carbs for this effect. Anyone eating a high-fat diet with mixture of fatty whole foods will get ample polyunsaturated fats from nuts and seeds, fish and poultry, meat and leafy green vegetables. Polyunsaturated fat is essential, but cooking fats are probably the worst way to get it in the diet, because the fats can be altered by cooking, less so if it’s cooked in a wholefood matrix (such as meat or fish).
The strongest evidence against butter is the historical narrative – New Zealanders, Canadians, Finns, Swedes and Australians once ate lots of butter (and smoked more, and ate fewer vitamins, minerals, polyunsaturated fats and antioxidants, and were exposed to more pollutants, and used different drugs) and had high rates of heart disease. When they ate less butter (and everything else changed as well), heart attack rates went down. Ten or twenty years ago butter consumption in those countries started to climb up again (since 1989 in New Zealand), but heart attack deaths are still going down.
The fact is that butter and olive oil are the two cheapest minimally refined fats/oils available in NZ, and butter is always guaranteed to be fresh and unadulterated.
But is butter dangerous in the context of a high-refined carbohydrate diet, when saturated fat does rise in the blood, the opposite of what happens on a low carbohydrate diet?
In 1967, when NZ butter consumption and heart attack deaths were at their highest, almost all the butter in the NZ diet was consumed in two ways; it was spread on white bread, and it was used in the sweet baking recipes of the Edmonds Cookbook. 4oz butter, 4oz sugar, 4oz flour, and an egg. To be eaten mostly as snacks – empty calories between meals.
Meanwhile the French and other European countries also ate lots of butter, but there it was being used to cook fish, meat, omelettes, and vegetables, or make rich sauces, and mostly eaten in meals. With less sugar and snacking and more whole food, and with other fats and oils as well (olive oil, duck fat, lard).
I hope no one thinks that there are health benefits from biscuits, cakes and slices made with butter, or pancakes served with butter, or white bread and butter sandwiches! We certainly don’t want anyone taking that message away when they see debates about butter in the media.
Our real food guidelines: Real food for real people, based on real evidence
- Enjoy nutritious foods everyday including plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit.
- Buy and prepare food from whole unprocessed sources of dairy, nuts, seeds, eggs, meat, fish and poultry.
- Keep sugar, added sugars, and processed foods to a minimum in all foods and drinks.
- If you drink alcohol, keep your intake low. Don’t drink if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
- Prepare, cook, and eat minimally processed traditional foods with family, friends, and your community.