Margarine: The Controversial Spread Linked to Alzheimer’s—Fact or Fiction?


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Whether it is an upshot of conspiracy theories or the gospel truth, margarine is being accused of stoking a spike in cases of Alzheimer’s that contribute to at least 36 deaths per 100,000 in the developed world. Tanzania, despite our economic backwardness, shifts in dietary intake to align ourselves with developed world exotic tastes – make us as vulnerable as them. This article investigates whether margarine is bad news for our health, and if so, what the viable options are against the growing problem of food-related ailments.

Conspiracy Theories Revisited

If you are pervious to pay attention to conspiracy theories that discourage spreading our slices of bread with margarine or lacing our foods with it, whether as cooking oil or spicing our sauce, broth, stew or soup, then this discourse is for you. Having margarine inside our bodies is passionately argued to trigger the chances of succumbing to Alzheimer’s and debilitate its victims before sending them to an earlier grave.

The grapevine says that margarine is only one molecule away from plastic, insects won’t settle on margarine when a piece is left outside, and solid vegetable fats are harmful to health. In comparison, butter, an animal fat, is consumed by insects when left outside, indicating that margarine is bad for our health.

Moreover, butter is associated with cholesterol without differentiating between good and bad cholesterol! Of note, not all types of cholesterol are good for our bodies. The claim says that 90% or so of our brain is cholesterol, and taking less butter and replacing it with margarine has been attributed to Alzheimer’s since 1973 in the USA.

Theorists say the disease was absent before 1973 and add that the introduction of mass-scale consumption of margarine did the damage. Therefore, it is now high time to call back margarine and restore butter to its rightful place. What the rumour conveniently skips or suggests is that other animal fats available in meat, milk, and cooking oils are either unavailable or kept constant to justify their insinuations.

What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of progressive dementia in older adults, but there are several other causes of dementia. Though dementia generally involves memory loss, memory loss has different causes. Having memory loss alone doesn’t mean you have dementia, although it’s often one of the early signs of the condition.

Dementia is a term used to describe a group of symptoms affecting memory, thinking, and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily life. It isn’t a specific disease, but several diseases can cause it.

Read Related: Plastic Waste is Up But Technologies to Recycle it Still Struggling

If you want to prevent dementia truly, you’ve got to start early because 20 years before anyone will get a diagnosis, we’re seeing dementia’s emergence. This is why a comprehensive investigation of plausible causes of Alzheimer’s is logical, as we may avoid bad habits that increase the chances of acquiring it.

The greatest risk factor for neurodegeneration is ageing. However, genetics at birth only contributes 20–25% to the determinants of lifespan, so we have around 75% control over how well individuals age in body and brain. Health is the real wealth everyone can significantly control to achieve sustainable health and quality of life through lifestyle choices.

This needs to be better promoted. Dementia is predominantly a disease of ageing, with millions of people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In recent years, little has happened to change and improve the cognitive functions of the elderly.

There are cognitive and psychological changes that accompany neurodegeneration that lead to Alzheimer’s, and the mental and physical deterioration tends to be slow and rarely noticeable until it is too late.

Cognitive changes may include memory loss, usually noticed by someone else, not the affected person. Other clinical signs include difficulty communicating or finding proper words. Patients fumble with visual and spatial abilities, such as getting lost while driving.

The patient in a washroom must leave a door open, or the door lock is intentionally disabled lest the patient forgets how to open it and stays locked. A nurse or a helper may be around to ensure the patient does not urinate or defecate inside the clothes or to help them wipe their genitals or ass after answering a natural call in more advanced cases of Alzheimer’s.

Patients wrestle with reasoning or problem-solving and struggle to handle complex tasks. Psychological changes are noted in personality changes, depression and anxiety. Patients tend to be aloof, abstracted, disengaged and perspire to follow discussions. They always keep asking questions, indicating their minds are elsewhere or are schizophrenic.

The patient rarely takes these symptoms seriously until it is too late, and curative efforts can barely respond to the challenges imposed. Physical changes may include loss of coordination, tremors and fatigue.

The total cost paid and unpaid by Alzheimer caregivers in the US in 2023 was estimated to be approximately $700 billion. Hence, the urgency of earlier diagnosis and prevention cannot be underestimated. In Tanzania, the sensitization of Alzheimer’s is still very low, and many patients either suffer in silence or seldom get the medical attention they desperately deserve.

Is Margarine One Atom Away From Plastics?

Margarine being “one molecule away from plastic” is just plain nonsense. Plastics are composed of polymers, while margarine is a blend of fats and water. There is no chemical similarity between the two. In any case, being “one molecule away” is a meaningless expression. Paint and margarine have compounds that aren’t toxic but play a role in maintaining the consistency of an emulsion over time, the same as most spreads.

I am unsure about the validity of saying that margarine and plastic are one molecule apart, but even if it’s true, one molecule makes a difference. H2O is water. It is used in nearly every process required for life, and your body both needs it and produces it. H2O2 is hydrogen peroxide. It is a strong enough chemical to bleach your hair and is very harmful if swallowed. And those compounds are only one atom apart. Tiny changes at the molecular level or below greatly impact chemical properties.

Since its invention in the mid-1800s, margarine has been a subject of controversy. It has been claimed that it is bad for you, that it was originally fed to livestock, and that it has no nutritional value at all!

Also, read The Hidden Risks of Bottled Water: Your Health is in Uncertainty, Beyond Control

None of the rumours about margarine are true, not even about it being worse for the cardiovascular system than butter. Some of these rumours may be easily believed, but none were more widely believed than the assertions that claimed to be backed by scientific evidence.

Among those were claims that margarine’s contents raised cholesterol. That one was true and quickly rectified by companies needing sales. Another rumour accepted without question is the one about margarine being almost plastic. While it caught on quickly, it doesn’t seem that margarine is almost plastic. Of course, it is easy to understand why people would believe it—the claim sounded very scientific!

Again, Is Margarine Almost Plastic?

The answer is more than just a yes or a no. Chemically speaking, yes, margarine is almost plastic because it has all of the same molecules as plastic except for one. But that isn’t how organic compounds work. Like literally everything, margarine is formed by molecules. Since everything is made of molecules, the molecular structure of certain things may look similar. However, that doesn’t mean the end outcome is the same.

How and when these molecules bond also impacts what product is made. Even though they have similar molecules, margarine and plastic are far from similar. The difference between that one molecule is very important not just for cases like margarine and plastic but also for things like ethanol and methanol – one is safe to consume, and the other could be fatal. Basic knowledge of molecular compounds and bonds disproves the claim that margarine is almost plastic.

Plastic is a generic term for a moldable solid made from organic chemicals. Margarine is not a homogeneous substance. It is a mixture of vegetable fats of different compositions. Plastics are usually composed of polymers, very long chains of hydrocarbons, whereas margarine contains many individual fat molecules of different types. In short, fossil compounds that form plastics are not vegetable oils.

Lastly, “one atom away” is a vague statement without chemical significance. The structures of the fats in margarine are very different from those of most plastics, so there’s no single atom you could change that would suddenly give margarine the properties of, say, polyethene. Polyethylene is a long-chain polymer, and the fats in margarine are not bonded to one another and have a different elemental composition.

You might be able to replace some particular functional group in those fats to make them reactive enough to polymerize, but on the whole, the statement sounds like uneducated fearmongering. For example, water (H2O) is “one atom away” from hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), a poison. This statement is true but doesn’t mean anything about water’s safety.

There may be valid health concerns about consuming margarine, but that statement is not one of them.

Butter Has Issues, Too!

The conspiracy theories never discuss that butter tends to grow bacteria, fungi, and moss, which can pose a health hazard. Butter is tough to preserve, and in Tanzanian circumstances, with power outages more of a norm than an exception, butter going bad quickly is not difficult to mull as a possibility.

Adding food preservatives to butter weakens the argument that it is pure animal fat. Depending on choices, food preservatives can profoundly impact whatever is left of animal fat.

In conclusion, I never liked the taste of margarine, and it gave me a reason to shun it except for exceptional circumstances. Even butter, I use sparingly, with health concerns of bad cholesterol deeply weighing in my mind.

I still look at a whole balanced diet and physical and mental exercises as part of the prescription to rebuff all kinds of mental derangement, and Alzheimer’s is by no means an exception. Being busy and leading a life of moderation are tools we need to deflect these ailments before they enslave and destroy us.

The author is a Development Administration specialist in Tanzania with over 30 years of practical experience, and has been penning down a number of articles in local printing and digital newspapers for some time now.

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