Margarine: The Original Butter Substitute

Margarine history

Margarine was invented in 1869 by a French chemist named Hippolyte Mege-Mouries. His patented process for making margarine involved churning beef tallow and milk. Margarine was created to win a prize offered by Emperor Napoleon III who wanted a cheap butter substitute for his armies and poor French citizens. The first margarine was significantly cheaper than butter while also tasting almost as good.

The market for what Mege-Mouries called oleomargarine continued to be small so in 1871, he sold it to a Dutch company. The company improved on his method by making margarine with far cheaper vegetable oils like olive oil. The resulting product was white, so they began dyeing it yellow to make it look more like butter.

Margarine made its way to the United States. Threatened by the cheaper alternative — the dairy industry fought against margarine. They convinced legislators to tax it at a high rate and lobbied to restrict the use of the dyes used to make margarine yellow. Dyed margarine was illegal by 1900. Some states even required it to be dyed pink to make it even more unappetizing. Other places went even further. Margarine was banned entirely in Canada between 1886 and 1948. An exception was made between 1917 and 1923 during World I when there was a butter shortage.

In the 1920s, it became illegal to add anything to butter. As a result, producers could not use ingredients that would make butter spreadable. Margarine suddenly had a major advantage in that margarine producers could make their product easier to spread. This caused it to become hugely popular. It became even more popular during the Second World War when shortages once again forced consumers to start using margarine. The US government ended the heavy taxation in 1950 and states began allowing sales of colored margarine with the last to do so being Wisconsin in 1967.

In the 1950s, margarine was seen as the healthier choice compared to butter because it contained less saturated fat. By the 1970s, Americans ate 10 pounds (4.54 kg) of margarine per person each year. Only in the 1990s did a Harvard study reveal the risks associated with margarine’s trans fats. Trans fats are produced by the use of hydrogen to solidify the liquid vegetable oils in margarine.

In recent years margarine’s popularity has declined even more and butter has made a comeback. People have begun to recognize that trans fats in margarine may be worse for health than the saturated fats in butter.

Margarine flavor profile

Margarine is evaluated based on how close its flavor is to that of butter. Most margarine does a passable job of replicating the creaminess of butter while others may taste more like their constituent vegetable oils, which may include olive or sunflower oils.

Health benefits of margarine

While the nutritional value of margarine can vary between the bands, margarine can provide you with nutrients like:

  • Vitamins: Margarine can contain vitamins A, E, and K.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: The omega-3 fatty acids in margarine may help to lower cholesterol levels and may help to alleviate inflammation.

With margarine in your diet, you may be able to prevent health problems like:

  • High cholesterol: Non-hydrogenated margarines can help to reduce cholesterol levels.
  • Obesity: Margarine typically has fewer calories than butter, making it the better option if you want to lose weight.

Health concerns

Trans fats — produced by the hydrogenation process used to make margarine — in some margarines may increase your risk for developing heart disease.

Common uses

Use margarine as a spread for bread or in baked goods recipes that have been formulated for margarine.