Butter vs margarine


Following on from the last post about milk, which also provides food for thought for buying other dairy produce, I thought it was worth following up with a quick peek at spreads.

In the red corner is butter. In the blue margarine.

Which should you be spreading on your toast and why?

For a few years, ever since someone told me that margarine’s natural colour is black and that it has to be bleached white and then dyed yellow in order to make it look acceptable, I’ve eaten butter. This tale convinced me that whatever health problems might be associated with butter, they’re probably not nearly as bad as eating something that’s made like margarine is.

So I’ve looked into it. I still don’t really know if margarine really starts off black. But it does appear that my gut response based on not much other than urban myth was about right.

And here’s why.

From an environmental point of view margarine is worse than butter. A lot of spreads are made from palm oil, often disguised as “vegetable oil”. Unbeknown to most of us, it’s also in about 10% of products you’ll find in your local supermarket. It’s in biscuits, ice cream and pastry. As well as soup, soap, toothpaste, shampoo and lipstick. It’s even boot polish. It’s everywhere.

The production of palm oil is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. In order to meet the massive demand for it, huge tracks of rain forest are being destroyed to make way for plantations from which to harvest it. Malaysia and Indionisia who between them produce 80% of the 30 million tonnes of palm oil the world now consumes every year, have created plantations that cover an area the size of England. Destroying rain forest is bad news as means there are less trees to soak up all the CO2 we’re pumping into the atmosphere. CO2 is also released from the peat bogs that rain forest clearance creates.

Not only do many spreads include palm oil, but the process of making margarine is also very energy intensive. It’s also highly industrialised and dominated by multinationals like Unilever (manufactures of Flora) who have been frequently criticised for their environmental record. Butter in contrast, tends to be produced by much smaller companies and produced in the UK from locally produced milk.

And then there’s what else there is in margarine.

To make it, you bubble hydrogen through cheap vegetable oil to turn it into solid fat. Then you mix it with water. The trouble is oil and water don’t mix. So you need to add some chemicals to make it mix. Things like lecithin or monoglycerine. Sounds nice eh?

Because the whole chemical process ends up removing much of the nutrition that was in the oil to start with, artifical flavourings and vitamins are added. Preservatives are put in so that it doesn’t go off quickly. And then colours are added in order to make it look like food. Yum.

Next time you pick up a tub of margarine, have a look at the ingredients list. It will almost certainly be lengthy. And it will contain a number of things that would sound more at home in a science lab rather than in something that you spread on your toast.

In contrast butter contains milk.

Just milk.

Perhaps some salt.

But pretty much, just milk.

From a health point of view, some new research suggests that, in moderation, some of the fats found in dairy products actually promote health rather than damage it.

Conversely, there’s also some recent research that suggests chemically hardened vegetable fats (margarine) may in fact contain something called trans-fats which are every bit as bad as the saturated fat found in butter. Basically, we shouldn’t eat loads of any hard fat.

In terms of what brands to buy, Ethical Consumer magazine recommends Biona, Yeo Valley Organic and Country Life butter.

If you still want to go for marg, then it recommends Biona and Suma. Biona use palm oil from a certified sustainable source. They give Bertolli, Stork and I Can’t Believe It’s Not butter pretty much the lowest score they ever give and  the market leader Flora score even worse and props up the league table. Don’t buy Flora.

Personally, I’m going to stick to butter. I’d rather wager my health with something that’s come out of an animal rather than a highly industrial process.

We’ve also recently just bought a butter dish. It’s satisfyingly retro and means that we buy the butter in paper rather than in the big plastic tub that ends up in landfill.

So what will it be? Butter or chemically hardened rain-forest-destroying vegetable fat? I know which I prefer.



After my last post about the eco diet I realised I haven’t written about dairy. Butter, cheese and all the other good things that come from milk.

OK, here’s what you need to know about your pint.

Because most of the milk we use comes from cows, many of the environmental issues associated with the production of meat are also true for milk. The animals fart and burp a lot of methane. Which is a greenhouse gas and contribute to our warming climate.

However, if cows are farmed in a low intensive way, they also have some upsides. They produce manure, which is a pretty important fertilizer for organic farming and they also help create good habitats for wildlife such as birds. And unless you’re a vegan, you probably, like me, would find it hard to do without dairy.

The problem is that much of the milk we consume in the UK is intensively produced. And intensive dairy farming is pretty horrible for the poor cows.

Cows naturally live until they’re around 20 years-old. But most intensively reared dairy cows are slaughtered at five because they are so ill and exhausted.

A calf would naturally suckle a few litres a day from its mother. An intensive dairy farm will take around 50. They’re bred to have bigger udders than is natural so most of them have back problems. And in order to make sure they keep giving milk, they’re almost permanently pregnant. Poor old Daisy.

Because they’re so abused and spend their miserable days wedged in a shed with loads of the other unfortunate creatures, they’re given antibiotics and other drugs to keep them going. And this of course ends up in the milk we drink. Yuck.

Then there’s the problem of what to do with all the unwanted calves. And this is the bit that gets animal rights campaigners particularly twitchy.

Calves are generally taken from their mothers within hours of being born, causing them and their mother a fair amount of distress. The girls eventually replace their mothers. The boys are sold for veal or fattened up in intensive farms and eventually become low quality beef.

All pretty horrible.

But, you’ll be please to know, it’s actually pretty easy to avoid bad milk. And therefore also butter, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products.

As with most food, the answer is to buy organic.

Milk that’s certified organic has come from cows that eat better, have superior living conditions and spend a fair amount of time outdoors eating grass. Like you, cows are what they eat. Milk from cows that have eaten grass generally tastes better and is better for you.

Organic certification also means antibiotics are banned and young calves get to stay with their mothers for longer and aren’t weaned off milk for at least three months. So they generally have a decent life and give better quality milk.

And the good thing about organic milk is that there’s loads of it around. In fact we produce so much of it in this country, that it’s often mixed with intensively produced milk, rather than sold as organic milk. Which seems a bit of a waste. And because there’s lots of it, it’s generally not much more expensive than the regular stuff.

If you’re lactose intolerant, you’ll also be glad to hear that goats milk also is generally less intensively produced so is normally all right too.

Then there’s where you buy it.

Believe it or not, the traditional milkman is the most eco-friendly way to get your pint. The dairy is generally nearby, it’s transported in a vehicle powered by electricity and the container it comes in is reused. Good old milky.

If you want to find out if there’s a milk round near you then you can check www.findmeamilkman.net.

If you haven’t got a milkman or it’s not practical then the next best thing is to go for the new bags of milk that are appearing in supermarkets. They use 70% less packaging than the standard bottle, which if you drink a lot of milk will soon add up.

So having discovered how badly the poor old dairy cows are treated and given how wildly available and relatively cheap organic milk is, I’m going to stick to the organic pints of the white stuff from now on. And next time you’re reaching for your usual pint, I think you should give Daisy a thought too. Moo.

Eco diet


It’s January. Traditionally it’s a time to think about New Year’s resolutions and dieting. So I am. I’m going on a diet. But not a normal diet.

My New Year’s resolution is to employ all of the things I have learnt since I started this blog about eating in good, sustainable and fair way. I’m going on an eco diet.

In a moment I will tell you the principals of this diet.

But first I’d like to encourage anyone reading this to join me in this slimming of carbon pounds and piling on of social-conscience vitamins. If you’re going to do it, leave a comment. And then tell anyone else you think will also do it. Let’s create a weird, online, eco version of Weight Watchers. I’m serious. I’ve even created a Facebook group if you’re that way inclined.

OK, here’s the diet.


  • Eat less of it.
  • Restrict beef to a couple of times a month.
  • Always try and buy organic, free-range rare breeds.
  • Buy British, particularly pork (unless it’s lamb out of season).
  • Go to a proper butcher when possible.

Fish and seafood

  • Buy Marine Steward Council-certified wild fish if possible.
  • Eat more fish that’s on the MSC’s fish to eat list and experiment with unusual varieties.
  • Don’t eat any fish on the MSC’s fish to avoid list.
  • Don’t eat tiger prawns.
  • Eat more mussels, cockles, clams and other sustainably sourced seafood.
  • Eat less farmed salmon and trout and buy organic.
  • Don’t buy small undersized fish.
  • Go to a proper fishmonger when possible.
  • Go fishing.

Fruit and veg

  • Buy organic.
  • Buy local.
  • Buy seasonal.
  • Get a vegetable box delivered (Abel & Cole, Riverford).
  • If it’s not in season or local, treat it as a luxury item.
  • Try and grow some.


  • Buy organic, free-range eggs.
  • Buy British cheeses, organic if possible.
  • Buy organic milk, in a bag to save on packaging.
  • Buy organic butter (don’t buy margarine) and use a butter dish (less packaging).

Pasta, rice and so on

  • Eat less rice (it comes a long way) and buy organic.
  • Experiment with more local grains and pulses.
  • Buy organic dried pasta.
  • Make bread or buy organic.


  • Buy organic, fair-trade chocolate (Divine, Green & Blacks) and don’t buy crap chocolate.
  • Buy organic, fair-trade coffee (Percol, Café Direct) and don’t drink instant.
  • Buy fair-trade tea.
  • Treat goods from far away like luxuries.


  • Drink local beer and cider.
  • Check the label and don’t drink lager brewed in distant countries.
  • Preference European wines – French, Italian, Spanish – and organic or biodynamic.
  • Drink organic fruit juice (and go for apple when they’re in season).
  • Cut out fizzy pop.
  • Don’t buy bottled water.
  • Drink in a pub.

Other principals

  • Cook from scratch (no ready meals).
  • Make use of leftovers and make stock from bones.
  • Always take a bag out shopping and refuse carrier bags.
  • Avoid items with loads of packaging.
  • Shop less in supermarkets and more in proper shops.

There’s more info in previous posts on fish, meat, apples, milk, butter and alcohol.

Now like all good diets, I realise we all may lapse from time to time but that’s fine. We’re only human after all. But I think its good to have something to aim at and some principals to try and stick to.

Now all this might cost a little bit more but I reckon if you’re eating a bit less meat and cutting out some of the expensive crap like ready meals, you can balance it out.

I also think that good food, particularly meat, should be a bit more expensive. If it’s a real bargain, the alarm bells should start ringing about what corners they cut to make it so cheap. And this is something you eat. I’d rather scrimp on something else.

I think that we should all think about our food, where comes from, who farmed it and how, how it got transported to us and how sustainable it is.

If you want to be a bit greener this year, thinking about the food you buy is a really good place to start. We buy loads of it. It’s easy to make significant changes. And when you do, what you eat generally taste a hell of a lot better. And more healthy. And having started to do a lot of this over the last year, it’s making me enjoy food a lot more. And that’s as it should be.

So then. Who’s with me? Who’s going to join me on my diet?


We’ve had new windows installed. The ones I mentioned on this blog several months back. They look good but it made a bit of a mess having them put in. Which means we now need to redecorate. So I’ve been looking into paint.

In the UK we use 83 million litres of paint every year. Nearly half of us purchase interior paints once a year or more. But paint can be nasty stuff. Far more nasty than some of the other domestic chemicals that many of us now try and avoid.

Most paints contain volatile organic chemicals otherwise known as VOCs. These include benzene, formaldehyde, kerosene and ammonia amongst others. All of these are known to be carcinogenic and can irritate eyes, nose, throat, skin and cause respiratory problems. Not nice.

That unmistakable smell of fresh paint is in fact the volatile organic chemicals reacting with the air. And when VOCs react with oxygen they create surface ozone. Surface ozone is also known as ‘bad ozone’. This is because it is, er, bad. It can damage vegetation, contributes to the greenhouse effect and helps to destroy the ‘good ozone’ higher up in the atmosphere – the famous hole in the ozone layer. Around 5% of all VOCs emissions can be attributed to paint.

The good news is that the EU has been getting pretty hot on VOCs in recent years and most paint manufactures now specify the VOC level on their tins. Most paint also now tends to be water-based rather than solvent based which is much better.

However, there are many other heavy metal, solvents and other nasties as well as VOCs. These are probably fairly harmless in small quantities but long-term exposure could be problematic for professional painters and decorators. The fumes from paint are also thought to be responsible for Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). This is headaches and other side affects brought on by a specific building and is a condition that is officially recognised by the World Health Organisation.

Making paint also produces a lot of waste. Producing one litre of paint can produce up to 30 litres of chemical waste products

So what paint should you buy?

Well, there are a number of eco paints on the market. The main producers are: Auro Organic, ECOS, Ecotec Paints and Nutshell.

They vary widely. Some contain synthetic chemicals such as vinyl and acrylic which are by-products of the petrochemical industry but no solvents. Others are far more natural, using plants as pigments. However, in general the greener the product, the more expensive it is and the more limited the colour choice. They also aren’t very widely available. Not many high street retailers stock them. And some don’t have a great reputation for how well they work. And a product that doesn’t work isn’t very eco.

If you don’t fancy the deep green option and prefer to stick to the big DIY stores, then B&Q’s own range of paints are very low in VOCs. B&Q are seen as being very progressive for their size and were one of the first to start labeling their paint with VOC information.

B&Qs bigger branches also stock the Fired Earth range. These are also very low in VOCs, manufactured in the UK and their paint cans are made of 25% recycled steel. They are also working to reduce their waste emissions. They are owned by Aga and also have a number of their own shops.

So go for paints labeled low, very low or minimal in VOCs. Buy water-based emulsions – don’t buy gloss, which are generally solvent based. It’s also probably worth avoiding the big paint manufactures that are owned by chemical companies. For example Dulux is owned by ICI, which is a company that has come in for a fair amount of stick from green groups.

And decorate less. If we didn’t redecorate so often, we’d use less paint. So on that basis, it’s probably worth going for a darker colour. It’ll be more interesting than off white too. You could even paint it green.

Useful links

Ethical Consumer Magazine paint comparision

Ecologist Magazine on paint


Apple tree

It was national apple day a week or so back. A day to celebrate the Britain’s favourite fruit. The average Brit eats a whopping 14kg of apples a year. The average American by comparison, consumes just 8kg. And in the scrumpy-loving South West of England, the average apple-munching is more like 17kg a year. They likes their apples in those parts.

However, over the last 30-years we have lost two thirds of our orchards. Over half of them disappeared between 1990 and 2000. Today, two-thirds of the apples we eat are imported from USA, New Zealand, South Africa and other far-flung places. And many of the apples we eat during the British season are imported from Europe. Normally boring apples like Golden Delicious.

We can grow apples in the UK from May through to October – different varieties mature at different times through out the summer months beginning with varieties like Vista, Discovery and Jonagold and finishing with Worcester Pearmain and Gala. And they’re pretty easy to store, particularly the later varieties, so we can continue eating British apples right through to the early spring.

Eating local produce drastically reduces its carbon footprints because it hasn’t had to travel a long way to get to you. It also supports our local apple farmers. Creating an orchard is a long-term commitment and unless our apple farmers have some security that people will buy their apples they won’t bother.

And then there’s the issue of bio diversity. There are still over 2000 varieties of apple grown in the UK. In the average supermarket you will find only eight. Asda stocks ten varieties, the market leader Tesco, just seven. 70% of the apples we buy are sold in supermarkets. And supermarkets prefer to just stock a few varieties easily recognisable to consumers.

This is a problem because it reduces the apple gene pool and makes the apple in general more susceptible to disease. It’s estimated that we have lost three quarters of genetic diversity in the last century and the apple is a striking example. If we carry on valuing profit margins and shelf life beyond everything else then we risk losing the apple in future generations.

Apples also absorb a large amount of pesticide. Non-organic apples are sprayed in more than 30 different sorts of chemicals. When tested, out of all fruit and vegetables the apple contains the highest chemical residues. 80% have detectable pesticide residue. In large quantities this could pose a health risk. So if you only buy a couple of organic things, the apple is a good one to pick.

So what should you consider next time you fancy a appley snack?

Well, between July and March, buy British. As local as you can. It will have travelled less distance, taste fresher and will help support our orchards.

From March to July, buy New Zealand apples. Apples produced in New Zealand generally have much lower CO2 emissions – as much as half those produced in the UK – because of the higher yield due to the Kiwi’s better climate. This difference will counter balance a good chunk of the CO2 produced by transporting it half way around the world. It’s better than keeping British apples in freezers, because running a freezer for a long time also produces a lot of CO2.

Ideally, buy an unusual variety from a farmers market or greengrocer rather than a supermarket. Alternatively get you apples from a local fruit and veg box-scheme. We get ours from Abel & Cole, who have sent us several different varieties over the last few months, all of them very nice. There are quite a few box-schemes now that deliver all over the country such as Riverford.

If you can, buy organic. Because it isn’t sprayed in pesticides, which are made from oil, it will have a considerably lower carbon footprint. It will be less of a health risk for the people growing them and ultimately better for you too. Not to mention having less of a negative impact on the local environment. However, organic apples are quite hard to grow, so if it’s a choice between a local standard apple and an organic one from far away then the local one is probably better.

So go and buy a British Russet or a Cox’s Pippin. Or Fiesta or a Discovery. Or something else more interesting than a Golden Delicious or a Granny Smith. How do you like them apples eh?

Eating fish

MSC logo

The other evening, I was buying some fish for my tea. And I was finding it tricky. I was bewildered by the different labels on the packs of fish that seemed to suggest they were more ethical. There were fish that were “line-caught”. Fish that were an “RSPCA freedom food”. Some that were “Marine Steward Council-certified” and several others that suggested other seemingly eco credentials.

As most people are, I’m also aware that many species of fish are on the brink of extinction – most famously cod. So what varieties of fish should I be buying? What do the many labels mean, which are the best and which are worth paying a little bit more for?

So in order to understand the solutions, I decided to find out what the problems are.

Wild fish issues

The global fish catch increased five times in the second half of the twentieth century. And it’s still growing. So many fish have been caught that only a quarter of fish species are not in some kind of trouble.

Over half of the world’s fish stocks are being fished to the limit of what is sustainable. Nearly a fifth are being over exploited. And 8% are now seriously depleted. The number of cod spawning in the North Sea is considered to be only a third of the bare minimum needed to maintain its population. In other words it’s dying out. Because we are catching and eating more than are born. Well done us.

However, it’s not necessarily eating it that’s the problem. It’s partly about the way it’s caught. As fishing has become more industrial, with massive driftnets gathering every living thing in their path, the amount of bycatch has increased. Bycatch is stuff that you didn’t set out to catch. It includes turtles, sea-birds, seals, whales and sharks as well as huge quantities of small fish that are thrown back dead. So in order to catch a few fish you do want, you also catch and kill a load of stuff you don’t. Very wasteful.

Bottom trawling – used to catch prawns, scallops, plaice, clams and snapper amongst others – is even worse. It involves dragging a fine net across the bottom of the sea-bed. This completely destroys delicate ecosystems and has probably wiped out many spiecies we didn’t even know about.

Farmed-fish issues

99% of the salmon we eat in the UK is farmed and not wild. Unfortunately, farming fish (or aquaculture as it’s known in the trade) is not the answer. It comes with its own, even worse problems.

Salmon, trout and many other commonly farmed fish are carnivorous. They eat other fish. So in order to produce a kilo of salmon, you need to feed it five kilos of other fish. The other fish is caught in the wild. So eating farmed salmon is like eating five wild fish. Blimey.

Salmon also excrete a lot of phosphorus. This ends up in the surrounding waters and suffocates things that live on the seabed and creates other toxic side affects. And much like intensively farmed meat, farmed fish are also given antibiotics, growth promoting drugs and colouring. Salmon should be grey, not pink. And all this weird stuff also ends up in the water and is messes about with things living naturally. It’s likely to still be present in the fish we eat too. Yuck.

There’s also the problem of escapee salmon. The WWF estimate that over 600,000 farmed salmon escape from Norwegian farms every year. These fish breed with wild salmon.  This causes a kind of negative evolution. The wild fish become less able to deal with natural conditions and are more likely not to survive. Oops.

And farmed king or tiger prawns, the kind you get at your local Indian, are even worse. So bad that they deserve a separate blog post.

Herbivorous, vegetarian farmed fish are less problematic as you don’t need to feed them other fish. These include carp and various less glamorous fish along with shellfish such as mussels, oysters and clams.

So what can you do?


The best option is to buy fish marked with the Marine Steward Council blue tick.

The MSC promote a responsible approach to fishing and monitor best practice. They award the mark to fisheries that can demonstrate they are committed to maintaining and re-establishing fish populations and who consider the biological, social and environmental impact of how they fish.

Currently there are only a small number of certified fisheries but the number is growing. Supermarkets now stock MSC-certified Pollock and Salmon from Alaska, New Zealand Hoki, Pacific Cod and Mackerel, Herring and Dover Sole from the UK. There’s a full list of stockists and what they have on offer on the MSC website.

As for other labels, line-caught is a good sign as it means they have used a line and not a massive drift net to catch it and so there is unlikely to be much bycatch. However, if what they’ve caught is North Sea cod, it’s still not sustainable.

The RSPCA freedom food label is applied to farmed fish. This guarantees better animal welfare but their standards are not as high as organic.

If you buy farmed fish, then organic is the best option. Organic fish will have been farmed in less intensive conditions and will not have been given antibiotics or colourings. That’s why organic salmon is not as pink as the standard stuff. Wild fish can never be classed as organic. Because it’s wild, you don’t know what it’s eaten.

Be picky with varieties

The other important thing is not to buy fish that is endangered. There’s a full list on the MSC-run site, fishonile.org but here’s some general rules.

Don’t buy Atlantic salmon, cod (except from Iceland), ling, monkfish, plaice (except from the Irish Sea), Snapper, Sword Fish, Tiger/King prawns (except organic), Skate, Sturgeon, Swordfish and Tuna (except dolphin-friendly, line-caught yellow fin and skipjack).

Do buy carp, clams, cockles, cuttle fish, pollock, black bream, seabream, Dover sole, Dublin Bay prawns, flounder, grey gurnard, herring, hoki, mackerel, red mullet, mussels sprat and whitling.

UK-caught fish also has less food miles so mackerel, herrings and Dover sole are a good bet.

Also, try not to buy small fish. These won’t have had chance to breed and should have been thrown back.

So next time I’m out looking for a fish supper, I’m going to avoid the salmon, unless its an organic treat. I’m going to try and avoid the cod and the haddock and try and go for something a bit more unusual. And if possible, I’m going to buy the one with the MSC blue tick and think twice about buying it if it doesn’t have one.

And I also might stop using the phrase “Plenty more fish in the sea”. Because there aren’t.


We’ve got another eco gadget. Ecoballs. They are plastic spheres with what looks like gravel in them and a spongy disc around the outside. And you can use them instead of conventional washing powder.

If you use normal washing powder, all of that frothy detergent gets washed down the drain. And ends up doing nasty things and polluting the environment. Environmentally friendly washing liquid like Ecover is of course one solution to this problem.

An even better solution is not using detergent at all.

So how do Ecoballs get your clothes clean?

Well, the pellets on the inside contain non-toxic mineral oxides. These make the water more alkaline. When they’re alkaline, water particles are smaller and therefore much more soluble. They can permeate fabric much easier and dislodge the dirt. Alkaline water is also antibacterial. Which is a similar to what normal detergent does.

And they do appear to work.

With things that are really dirty, like wiffy towels, you might want to stick to the Ecover. But for your average wash of shirts, jeans and pants they’re absolutely fine.

Initially it’s a little strange as your clothes come out smelling of nothing but water. We’re used to smelling detergent, which makes us think clothes are clean. But then you realise that it means you’re not rubbing weird chemicals against your body. And that that’s probably a very good thing. Particularly if you have sensitive skin or are allergic to some washing powders.

They cost thirty quid but claim that on average they only need refilling every 18-months and can save you up to 80% on your washing bills. It also means that, if your washing machine lets you, you can skip the rinse-cycle because there is no detergent that needs to be rinsed out. This means that you can also save a lot of water and electricity.

I bought ours online – there are loads of places that sell them – but you can also get them from places like John Lewis. And I’d say they’re certainly worth a go.