Are Mums really United in their love of Margarine?

By November 21, 2011Uncategorized
The Australian Heart Foundation has found a new and even more devious way to entangle itself with the interests of the processed food industry. Its new “Mums United” campaign pretends to be a grassroots movement for healthy living. But it walks like a margarine advertisement and quacks like a margarine advertisement, so guess what it I think it is.
The Heart Foundation’s “Mums United” campaign asks mums to “change the shape of Australia.” No earth moving equipment is required so I suspect they mean they’ll change the shape of Australians. Apparently ‘Dads’ are not up to the task (or is it just that in the Heart Foundation’s world ‘mums’ do all the shopping?).
Putting aside its deeply patronising premise, mums can get going with their ‘fat-busting’ using some tips from the Heart Foundation. Tip #2 is to make sure mums use margarine instead of butter.
The campaign was only launched last month, but already it has received impressive media coverage and has a facebook group with over 4,500 followers. Selin Tas posted a link to her blog post which says “We finished our [Mum’s United] meeting pledging never to purchase butter again”.
And Selin is not the only one. The facebook page is full of mums posting stories of how they have organised groups of fellow mums and sworn off butter. The casual reader could easily come to the conclusion that the Heart Foundation has tapped into a throbbing artery of desire (among Australian mummy bloggers) to change the health of a nation (or at least to eat more margarine).
Except that (rather like the construction of sausages) it is better not to look too closely at the process. It turns out that Mums United is an advertising campaign.  Roberta Donovan, marketing director of the Heart Foundation explained to an advertising industry magazine “our campaign galvanises Mums into being part of an ongoing movement – one that sees Australians work together to achieve a healthy weight for the nation.”
The social media and word of mouth campaigns are being run through “conversation marketing agency” Soup. Their website tells us that they gave mummy bloggers “a $10 voucher” and asked them to “hit the supermarket and buy margarine instead.” Soup tells us that the “results were outstanding; most [mummy bloggers] reported … they have since made the switch to margarine …”
And Soup’s largesse doesn’t end there. Many of the bloggers report that Soup has sent them up to $350 of shopping cards to distribute as prizes to any readers who sign up to their facebook pages or comment on their Mums United blog posts.
It all sounds like a bonanza for the mummy bloggers and their readers (and at least according to Soup, its working). I asked the Heart Foundation who was paying for all of this. They told me that there are several social media campaigns being run by Soup on their behalf but they refused to say who was picking up the tab for any of them. All they would say is that companies entitled to use the tick can optionally get involved in “co-operative marketing” programs (like Mums United).
And this is by no means the only example of “co-operative marketing.” Last year the Heart Foundation was involved (judging by the prominent use of their logo) with a series of infomercial-type advertisements put together by Goodman Fielder (the manufacturer of Meadow Lea). The commercials featured a cardiologist who told us “what saturated fats can do to your child’s health”. He then goes on to suggest that we should switch to a margarine spread made with plant seeds.
You can still see the ad on a website called Spread the Facts which is “brought to you by Goodman Fielder” and which highlights the Heart Foundation’s recommendation that we swap margarine for butter.
The cosy relationship between margarine makers and the Heart Foundation is not new. In 2001, Bill Shrapnel (then a consultant nutritionist to Unilever Australia, maker of Flora margarine) pointed out that “Modern nutrition advice is one of the most negative influences on margarine consumption.” At the time, the Australian Healthy Eating Guidelines asked people to eat a low fat diet and this negatively impacted on margarine sales (as it is a visible source of fat).
But as Bill pointed out, things were improving (for the margarine manufacturers) because the Heart Foundation had just started recommending “an increase in the polyunsaturated fat content of the Australian diet of between 80 and 100 per cent.” He then suggested this represented “a rare opportunity” and that “[p]erhaps … margarine companies should consider assisting the Heart Foundation in its educational activities about dietary fats.” It looks like they listened to that very sage marketing advice.
The only trouble is that they Heart Foundation’s own analysis of the evidence does not support its “co-operative marketing.”  It is not hard to come away from the current campaign with the impression that eating less fat is good for your weight. But the Heart Foundation’s most recent (2003) position statement on the subject says exactly the opposite – “Dietary fat is not an independent risk factor for the development and progression of overweight and obesity. [my emphasis]”
And there’s absolutely no evidence that switching polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat will have any effect on weight whatsoever. That stands to reason. They are both fats, and they both deliver 9 calories per gram. As far as our digestive system is concerned they are identical.
Margarine can be legally sold in this country. And margarine companies are entitled to use every (legal) marketing tactic to sell their product. But why is our Heart Foundation rolling around in the marketplace with them? Why are they sneaking through the back alleys of the internet whipping up mummy blogger campaigns with gift cards? And why are they happy to create an impression about health benefits which they know not to be true? 
The Heart Foundation’s tick program generates money for a charity and I guess that’s a good thing. But it comes with a heavy price. Co-operative marketing means the Heart Foundation’s health halo is sullied by commercial interests. It means (whether they intend it or not) that the Foundation becomes a spokesperson for the processed food industry. And the result is that the foundation is less an independent umpire and more a player from the other team wearing the umpire’s uniform.
So do us all a favour Heart Foundation and give your tick (and the phoney campaigns that come with it) the flick.

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • nads says:

    The AHF are digging themselves into a deeper and deeper hole with their ticks and now their commercial interests. It’s all going to blow up in their faces sooner or later. I’m so glad we’ve got you David on their backs.

  • Jemma says:

    I recall that the ad with the cardiologist telling us that ‘this much saturated fat’ goes straight into children’s arteries from butter, and that we should choose a spread made with plant seeds, was always followed by an ad for Meadow Lea, which emphasised that it was made from plant seeds. So subtle. I notice that this ad hasn’t been on TV for a while and presumed that the company (or the cardiologist?) had had a change of heart (pun intended) based on the latest systematic reviews suggesting that saturated fats don’t cause heart disease, but perhaps not if they are still running their online campaign.

    Anyway, personally I’ve recently made the switch from margerine to butter and would gladly take a pledge not to go back. Frankly, I don’t for one moment believe that ‘plant seeds’ ie machine-derived fake oils can be better for our weight or heart than naturally derived butter, nut and fruit oils. Can’t wait for your new book on this topic, David. Thanks as always for an interesting piece!

  • Bellsy says:

    Great article, David. I agree with all of it except the part that margarine and butter have the same calories, therefore have the same impact on weight. The *quality* of calories of butter is far superior to chemically manufactured margarines. Consumption of butter increases the absorption nutrients in other foods. Butter is natural saturated fat, which our bodies are designed to thrive on. Margarine, on the other hand is not too dissimilar to plastic at the molecular level. I just hope that the mummy bloggers who have taken payment for their promotional support don’t actually eat margarine or feed it to their families.

  • Obviously the AHF isn’t listening to the Macular Degeneration Foundation who is telling its good listeners to avoid margarine…..evil stuff. Easiest way to change your health is to remove processed vegetable oils and margarine and everything made with it. ….Well, apart from giving fructose the boot 😉
    “American studies have shown that patients eating a lot of vegetable oil, margarine, processed and baked foods containing more oil developed MD and lost vision more rapidly”

  • David thank you for your brilliant insight. After 25 years of independent research into health I can tell you the NHF and the margarine companies have got it so wrong. And despite their attempts to pollute the minds of mums there is a much greater movement out there based on common sense and good science which is telling people the exact opposite. Unfortunately along with margarine the NHF go against common sense and science with their support of sugary breakfast foods and take-aways. How low will they stoop

  • Karin says:

    Margarine is foul and will never be served in my house!

  • Debbie says:

    I am fed up with untrue marketing which can con and confuse so many of us. However, its not going to go away, some food manufacturers, apparantely, have an interest in selling their product regardless of the consequences. It is up to us to decide what fuel we want to put into our body. So, I say, lets keep doing our own research, so we can make informed decisions from trustworthy sources. To do this takes some time, sure – but if we put in the time to be healthy, we are going to feel a whole lot better. I find the internet, bookstores and my local library very helpful One thing for sure, an investment into our health is one of the best we will make in our lifetime. Thanks for your input into my quest for a healthy lifestyle David, would be great to see another book one day.

  • StepForward says:

    Thanks again for another insightful article. It is so good to find someone doing a bit of clarifying when there is so much muddying of the waters. Ta

  • Rachel says:

    I choose butter (well, Coles Dairy Spread) because it has simple and few ingredients, it’s low in sugar, it feels right and natural to eat it. Margarine just tastes like plastic now.

    If only mums would do their own research about what is good food instead of relying on advertising. It really doesn’t take too much work. The advertising and the heart foundation only works because people haven’t done their own homework themselves.

    If your grandmother could eat as much butter as she wanted, so could you (within reason). Question EVERY advertisement and eat food that is as less refined as possible – and avoid foods that are very processed, and that INCLUDES margarine!

    Keep up the great work, David!

  • Since quitting sugar we have only been eating organic butter. We ate very little margarine beforehand. Why would you opt for something chemically processed over good old fashioned butter? The name margarine even sounds dodgy. I don’t pay the ‘tick’ any attention. I use my common sense and read the labels. As a ‘mummy blogger’ myself, you couldn’t pay me to feed my family margarine.

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