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Spread the Word About Margarine : Nation's Fixation on Fat and Cholesterol Has Caused Preference by Consumers

March 17, 1988|CAROLE SUGARMAN | The Washington Post

Butter-lovers have cursed, ignored and even enacted laws against it, but they haven't been able to stop the spread.

Consumption of margarine has steadily--and rampantly--increased since it was concocted by French pharmacist Hippolyte Mege for butter-short troops during the Napoleonic Wars.

These days descendants of Mege's invention fill tubs and sticks and squeeze bottles, jamming supermarket refrigerator cases. In 1987 Americans spent close to $1.5 billion on margarine products, and there's every indication that the buying trend will remain strong.

In fact, much to the continual chagrin of farmers and their cows, we now consume twice as much margarine as butter.

Plenty of Confusion

The plenitude has wrought confusion, however. Margarine manufacturers have found a timely niche because of the national fixation over fat and cholesterol. Competition in the margarine marketplace now focuses on a given brand's supposedly healthier choice of oil or its ability to help lower blood cholesterol.

Via label claims and television advertisements, we are led to believe there are distinctions that may mean the difference between a prudent purchase and a poor one.

Lever Brothers, for example, distributes a 72% vegetable-oil spread under the Promise brand that claims to have "no cholesterol" and is "low in saturated fat." What the label doesn't reflect, however, is that no margarines contain cholesterol, and that all margarines are low in saturated fat.

In fact, most margarine-type products are surprisingly similar. The biggest differences are among categories rather than brands. To bring order from confusion and evaluate those differences, it first helps to know the categories.

There are essentially seven different margarine-type products commonly available--three margarines, two margarine substitutes and several that fit into both FDA definitions.

The margarines, which must be at least 80% fat by weight, are:

--Stick margarines, which are more popular than any other kind of margarine product.

--Soft margarines in tubs.

--Liquid margarines in squeeze bottles.

--Margarine-butter blends such as Land O'Lakes Country Morning Blend. Not all blends have enough fat to fit into this category.

Margarine substitutes have less than 80% fat by weight. These substitutes may or may not be referred to as imitation margarine, which means that the product is not nutritionally equivalent to margarine in terms of vitamins, minerals and protein. Margarine substitutes include:

--Margarine-butter blends such as Blue Bonnet's Better Blend.

--Vegetable-oil spreads, which have less total fat than margarine and have shown tremendous sales gains in recent years.

--Diet or reduced-calorie margarines, which usually have less total fat and fewer calories than vegetable oil spreads. There has been continuing controversy over whether these products can be called "diet" or "reduced-calorie" since the definition of margarine calls for a fat minimum which cannot be met by a calorie-reduced product. The FDA is in the process of reviewing the situation.

Created Almost Equal

Most margarines and margarine substitutes are created equal--or almost equal. Made by emulsifying oil and water, they differ primarily in the proportions of oil to water and the degree to which they are hardened.

Spreads and diet margarines have less fat in them because they have more water. Stick margarine products are obviously hardened more than those in tubs or squeeze bottles.

The hardening of oils is called hydrogenation --a chemical process that involves adding hydrogen gas to a heated oil. The process transforms a small amount of the polyunsaturated fats in the oil to saturated fats, some to monounsaturated fats and leaves others unchanged.

Practically all margarines and margarine substitutes are manufactured with the same additives. Mono- and di-glycerides and lecithin are used to emulsify and stabilize margarine; sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, citric acid and calcium disodium EDTA are used as preservatives; beta carotene is used to color margarine; and artificial flavors are added. Margarines are also fortified with Vitamin A.

Some consumers shun margarine because of the additives, claiming that they would rather eat a teaspoon of butter than a tablespoon of colorized yellow glop. And among serious cooks, there are many who are adamant against giving up the taste of butter. Even among health and nutrition professionals, there are differences in opinion.

Margarine (excluding margarine substitutes) and butter each contains 100 calories per tablespoon and 11 grams of fat. The major difference between all margarine-type products and butter is that butter contains cholesterol--31 milligrams per tablespoon--and margarines contain none. The only exceptions to this are margarine-butter blends, which contain a small amount of cholesterol.

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