Cholesterol, and Margarine Versus Butter*

We have recently witnessed a cholesterol craze. Many foods are proudly labeled “low cholesterol,” and people shun such high-cholesterol foods as eggs, dairy products, shellfish, and meat. They frantically run to their doctors to have their blood-cholesterol levels periodically measured and then either brag or worry about the results.

There seems to be more misunderstanding about cholesterol than any other nutrient, and this misunderstanding has been widely promulgated and exploited. Cholesterol is more than just a scientific term; it is now a catchword. The powerful food, drug, medical, and media industries have profited by the public’s befuddlement about the role of cholesterol in heart disease. These industries have contributed to the confusion—sometimes actively and knowingly. To understand cholesterol, it is first necessary to achieve the following historical perspective:

A half a century ago, it was illegal for any non-dairy product to imitate butter. Advertisements for margarine were prohibited from mentioning the word butter and, instead, spoke of the “high-priced spread.” Without added coloring, margarine was a particularly unappetizing substitute for butter because, in its “natural state,” it was as white as snow and looked just like lard. But margarine was prohibited by law from containing any yellow coloring to make it look like butter. Therefore, each package of margarine included a tiny packet of yellow coloring, which, with difficulty, could be mashed into the white, lard-like margarine to make it look like butter. After plastic was invented, one company packaged margarine in a plastic pouch containing a small capsule of liquid yellow dye. The capsule could be broken and kneaded into the margarine by hand without creating a mess.

Eventually, the corn-oil industry succeeded in overturning the margarine/butter law. Margarine was then colored and flavored to imitate butter and specifically advertised as a butter substitute.

Next, studies associating heart disease with blood-cholesterol levels were done and made public. The margarine manufacturers seized upon this wonderful opportunity and advertised margarine as cholesterol-free, whereas butter was “high” in cholesterol. The implication is that avoiding foods containing cholesterol will result in lower blood-cholesterol levels, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease.

Shortly before studies on cholesterol were being exploited by the margarine industry, there was a diet/exercise craze, inspired by President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy sponsored a public campaign for Americans of all ages to become health conscious. Subway advertisements proclaimed, “If you can do more push-ups than your son, he’s out of shape.” People started to jog and do calisthenics. The medical profession, noting a drop-off in routine visits resulting from this new-found self-reliance, mounted a campaign. Radio and television advertisements now characterized high blood pressure as “the silent killer” and insisted that there was no way of knowing your blood pressure without a medical examination. The advertisements typically ended with a grim warning to those diagnosed as having high blood pressure to take their medication.

Blood-pressure-measuring devices soon became available in stores, thereby eliminating the necessity of visiting a doctor for this test. The medical profession then shifted its emphasis from checking blood-pressure levels to blood-cholesterol levels. People now went to doctors to have their blood-cholesterol levels measured and, regardless of the results, would return periodically to discover any change. There has been little incentive for the medical and drug industries to learn whether blood cholesterol is a primary cause of heart disease or results from other factors that also cause heart disease. Similarly, the food industries have done their best to oversimplify and confuse the complex issues surrounding cholesterol. Moreover, the media have allowed themselves to become pawns in this self-serving enterprise.

Because of the misinformation about it, cholesterol is erroneously regarded by many as a primary constituent of fat. In fact, cholesterol is completely absent in any vegetable fat or, for that matter, in any vegetable product. The fat in animal flesh usually contains only a slightly higher level of cholesterol (95 mg/100g) than does the lean (70 mg/100g). In fact, some very low-fat animal foods, such as lobster or beef liver (250 and 300 mg of cholesterol per 100-g edible portion, respectively), have substantially higher levels of cholesterol than some moderately fatty animal foods or even than fat itself.

Cholesterol is a substance naturally produced by our bodies to serve various essential purposes. All of our cells require cholesterol; it is required for the functioning of our immune and reproductive systems. While a dietary intake of cholesterol is unnecessary, a moderate intake saves the body the trouble of producing it. It is, however, doubtful that dietary cholesterol is an important cause of any build-up of arterial cholesterol, which has been connected to heart disease. In fact, that build-up is much more likely a result of dietary factors other than the intake of cholesterol and fat, per se.

The following is an attempt to clarify the relationship between cholesterol and cardiovascular disease in a manner not usually heard:

Once free radicals have been introduced into the body, they are removed and their damaging effect is offset by substances called anti-oxidants. Vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, and selenium are examples of anti-oxidants. It is ironic that the very oils that contain the free radicals have had the vitamin E removed in the refining process. Moreover, white flour, the staple of the American diet, has had all of the zinc and vitamin E removed—as well as other vital nutrients. When the natural anti-oxidants are unavailable, the body then must utilize cholesterol to reduce the damaging effects of free radicals. If certain dietary vitamins and minerals are insufficient, some residue of this cholesterol will remain in the arteries. Arterial cholesterol is evidently more a symptom of a problem than the problem itself. The problem is a diet high in free radicals and low in essential nutrients.

To attempt to reduce blood cholesterol levels by removing cholesterol from the diet does not address the problematic effects of free radicals and may place an additional burden on the body to manufacture its own cholesterol. The answer is to lower the intake of free radicals and increase the intake of antioxidants. Damaged vegetable fats (containing free radicals) and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, (which contain trans fats) should be avoided. Raw nuts and seeds are high in beneficial fats, vitamins, and minerals and should be a substantial part of the diet—whether or not a person is trying to lose weight.

An Anecdote

Over the years, my total cholesterol has always been about 180 or below. A few years ago, my cholesterol was 210, 30 points higher than usual and 10 points higher than the cutoff of 200. Some believe the cutoff was contrived to be way lower than 260, which would be more realistic. Lowering the cutoff appears to have the purpose of getting even more people on Lipitor, the largest selling drug in the world.

When my M.D. pointed out the “high” cholesterol value, I said, “I ate a dozen oysters at supper the night before the blood test.” My M.D. said, “You should not have done that.” I replied, “But I fasted until 3:30 the next afternoon when the blood was drawn. I had fasted over 10 hours more than the 7 hours that I was told to fast.” My M.D. replied, “Still, it’s going to affect the test.”

Since then, the yearly tests have shown total cholesterol levels of 170–180, implying that the dozen oysters did affect the test.

If eating a high-cholesterol food but then fasting even longer than the required time can change this blood test, then the test is invalid. It is measuring what you ate and not indicating a condition in your body!

Either the fasting duration should be lengthened or the test should be abolished.

Read about and view fraudulent margarine commercials

*From Robert Chuckrow, The Intelligent Dieter’s Guide, Rising Mist Publications, Briarcliff Manor, NY, 1997.

Composition of Foods (Agriculture Handbook No. 8), U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sold by Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, 1963.

©Copyright 1997 by Robert Chuckrow

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