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I am slowly transitioning to a healthier diet and I am in a quandary about the health effects of butter and margarine. I went to buy a butter replacement and chose an olive spread. I'm in the uk.

My question is, does the increased risk of cancer and heart disease from consuming dairy products outweigh the increased risk of cancer from mono and di glyserides of fatty acids, and/or hydrogenisation of transfats in the artificial spreads?

  • It may be helpful to specify which country you're asking about. For example, trans fats are banned in Canada which would affect the answer if you lived in Canada. – Nic Nov 29 '19 at 1:58
  • Didn't know that, thank you I will edit it. I'm in the uk. – Colin Ellis Nov 29 '19 at 14:53
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Question: How do the health effects of butter and margarine compare?

Short answer: There is no convincing evidence to say that either butter or margarine is harmful or beneficial for health. Or, according to Harvard Medical School:

Today the butter-versus-margarine issue is really a false one. From the standpoint of heart disease, butter remains on the list of foods to use sparingly mostly because it is high in saturated fat. Margarines, though, aren't so easy to classify. The older stick margarines turned out to be clearly worse for you than butter. Some of the newer margarines that are low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated fat, and free of trans fats are fine as long as you don't use too much.

Butter

The summary of recent evidence suggests that butter consumption, despite being high in saturated fat, is not associated with increased health risk. On the other hand, high total dairy intake has been associated with increased risk of prostate cancer. It is not clear which component of dairy may be associated with cancer, though.

Is Butter Back? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Butter Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Total Mortality (PLoS One, 2016)

In conclusion, the available evidence indicates small or neutral associations of butter consumption with all-cause mortality, CVD, and type 2 diabetes. (CVD = cardiovascular disease)

Dairy consumption and CVD: a systematic review and meta-analysis (British Journal of Nutrition, 2016):

The results of this meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies have shown that dairy consumption may be associated with reduced risks of CVD, although additional data are needed to more comprehensively examine potential dose-response patterns.

Dairy and PROSTATE cancer:

Dairy products, calcium, and prostate cancer risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies (AJCN, 2015):

High intakes of dairy products, milk, low-fat milk, cheese, and total, dietary, and dairy calcium, but not supplemental or nondairy calcium, may increase total prostate cancer risk. The diverging results for types of dairy products and sources of calcium suggest that other components of dairy rather than fat and calcium may increase prostate cancer risk.

Dairy products intake and cancer mortality risk: a meta-analysis of 11 population-based cohort studies (Nutrition Journal, 2016):

The current analyses showed that higher total dairy, milk, yogurt, butter and skim/low-fat milk intake was not associated with increased cancer mortality risk, while exposure to highest dose of whole milk intake increased about 50 % of prostate cancer mortality risk.

Dairy and TESTICULAR cancer:

Dairy Consumption and Risk of Testicular Cancer: A Systematic Review (Nutrition and Cancer, 2018):

There is no consistent evidence to support the premise that dairy product consumption is associated with the risk of TC development.

Dairy and COLORECTAL cancer:

Association Between Dairy Product Consumption and Colorectal Cancer Risk in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Epidemiologic Studies (Advencec in Nutrition, 2019):

In conclusion, high consumption of total dairy products and total milk was associated with a lower risk of developing CRC.

Margarine

Some time ago, the problem with margarines was their high trans fat content, but this has changed:

Fat composition of vegetable oil spreads and margarines in the USA in 2013: a national marketplace analysis (International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 2016):

This national 2013 survey shows that the fat quality of vegetable-oil-based spreads in the US substantially improved over the last decade. This is reflected by a significant removal of trans fat, a decrease in solid fat (saturated-fatty acids plus trans-fatty acids), and an increase in the proportion of unsaturated fat. In 2013, the majority of US branded spreads (86% by sales volume), and in particular soft spreads in a tub format (99% by sales volume), no longer contained partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

There is no clear evidence to say that margarines are better than butter for health:

Theoretical effects of substituting butter with margarine on risk of cardiovascular disease (Epidemiology, 2017):

This theoretical dietary substitution analysis suggests that substituting butter and stick margarine with tub margarine when spreadable fats are eaten may be associated with reduced risk of myocardial infarction.

In conclusion, it may not be possible to say which is better -- butter or margarine -- just from the studies, so everyone can judge this based on what your body and intuition tells you about what's good for you - something that is good for someone may not be good for you.

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  • With the power, lobbying history and wealth of the dairy industry i always look on positive results of dairy studies with s bucket full of salt. However if I relied on my intuition which i often do then i would live on milk, butter, sugar and chocolate so I'm not sure that is the best advice. Thank you for your in depth answer. – Colin Ellis Nov 29 '19 at 15:17
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    @ColinEllis, what I presented is just a part of the wider research that I did some time ago and the evidence of dairy is quite consistent in the sense that it is not that harmful, except maybe that it is associated with increased risk of prostate cancer. My last paragraph was just about this: if this evidence (which is quite boring, honestly) does not convince you then use your best personal judgement. My point is that when studies do not show clear benefits or harms of a food for people in general you can judge them personally - and your body, mouth, stomach and beliefs can help you. – Jan Nov 29 '19 at 15:26
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    My intuition does not lead me to eat milk, chocolate and sugar all day because I get fed with all that - and I'm the one with a sweet tooth. – Jan Nov 29 '19 at 15:28
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Margarine is extremely toxic and is dangerous for human consumption. Consider using other oils such as coconut oil or olive oil. Some people use frozen olive oil and their butter spread, which can obviously be flavored if wished as well. A less-favorable option, because it contains the health-destroying ingredient, soy, is called "Pure Blends", the same price for the versions that include either avocado oil or coconut oil as one ingredient. Unfortunately, there currently appear to be no nationwide brands of imitation-butter which do not contain soy or artificial colors or some other extremely damaging substance.

In comparison, butter is very healthy especially when goats' milk is used, because it contains animal fats as well as several vitamins, including vitamin D, which almost all humans are deficient in, and because it does not contain anything that is toxic and unsafe for human consumption. Of course, obviously, compromised butter, such as butter which has pasteurized, or butter which has been made from the milk of animals who live on a non-organic farm, or butter that is made from the milk of animals who consume grains or other things that are not grass, would indeed be unhealthy. But, since it at least has some degree of regular human foods, rather then being entirely manufactured for non-consumable purposes like margarine was, it at least will still be safer to consume then margarine is.

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    Could you provide some sources for your claim? Saying that "margarine is extremely toxic and dangerous for human consumption" is a big statement and if you have the data to back it up please do share them. Otherwise it is just your opinion and that's not what we'd like the answers here to be. – Alexander Rossa Nov 29 '19 at 15:31

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