© Denzil Green
Margarine is a product meant to be an alternative to butter. More than that, though, it become the product that launched a thousand political battles.
The dairy industry is ever vigilant about margarine claiming to be butter. They don’t seem to mind the word “butter” being used to describe peanut butter, or almond butter, or milk being used to describe soy milk or almond milk, but just try to call margarine butter and oh boy, they’re all over you. That’s fair enough, but the dairy industry has an unfortunate, century-long history of urging governments to suffocate if not ban outright the margarine industry (see History section below.) If even the smallest of these repressive measures had been directed instead at the butter industry, there’s no doubt they would have taken a different view of what was right and wrong. One thing governments weren’t able to do, though, was police what people said at home in their dining rooms, and that was “pass the butter” when pointing at a tub of margarine.
Margarine isn’t necessarily made from vegetable oil, as popular conception has it. Animal fats can also be used, as indeed they are in a lot of the margarine in Australia. Whether the fat used to make it is vegetable or animal based, it’s mixed with many other things including powdered or skim milk, salt and emulsifiers. It’s then hydrogenated so that it will remain solid at room temperature.
There are 3 main types of margarine:
- hard, block type for cooking and baking. 80% fat;
- spreadable margarine from the fridge;
- margarine which emphasizes certain health benefits.
At first, people used margarine because it was cheaper than butter. This isn’t necessarily the case anymore; many of the better brands of margarine either offer negligible savings or cost more than butter. However, the shift to margarine has continued because it was perceived as healthier than butter.
Margarine consumption is now greater than butter consumption, and there is a dividing line between those who prefer butter versus those who prefer margarine. Mostly, it just depends on what you’re used to. If you’re a margarine user, however, you probably don’t spread it as thickly on your English muffins, scones or crumpets as you would butter.
Many people keep both margarine and butter in the house: butter for when taste really matters, and margarine because it’s spreadable right from the fridge for quick sandwiches. Margarine (completely vegetable based margarine) is very useful if you are trying to keep a kosher kitchen in which you strictly separate milk and meat products.
Just as many people referred to margarine as “butter” in popular speech, spreads are now being colloquially called “margarines.”
Spreads are for spreading, not for cooking with. In many countries you can now buy spreads that are made from both butter and margarine (but in some countries, it is still illegal to do that.) In Europe, these spreads cannot be called “butter”, which is fair enough: they are called “butter mixtures.”
New Zealand has developed a spreadable butter called “Anchor”, which is brilliant: it’s spreadable right from the fridge, so it can compete with one of the convenience factors of soft margarines. It’s available in the UK.
Suine is an old word that meant margarine mixed with lard from pigs. It was made in the late 1800s.
Butterine was once also a name for margarine. At the time, most margarine was made from animal fat such as pork lard or beef tallow.
When Hippolyte Mege-Mouriez took out his patent in England for margarine in 1869, he did so calling it “butterine.” In the late 1880s, it was used as the word for margarine in the UK until the word “margarine” won over. The use of the word “butterine” continued longer in America. Many margarine companies called themselves “butterine” companies, such as the Standard Butterine Company of West Virginia, the Churngold Butterine Company of Ohio, and the “Baltimore Butterine Company” in Maryland, which was still in business in 1933.
Butterine has now made a tentative reappearance, being used informally from time to time as a term to describe spreads that are a combination of margarine and butter.
Be careful using soft or whipped margarine in cooking. You’re better to use the firm, stick margarine. Soft margarine won’t behave the same: for instance, in making fudge, the fudge won’t set.
Hydrogenation produces trans-fats, which are currently seen by many as being a greater evil than the saturated fat in butter.
Most of all, the history of margarine is a political story, with sides either protecting our right to good food or prohibiting us as consumers from making our own choices, depending on which way you are predisposed to look at things.
The great irony of it all is that it’s France who encouraged the invention of margarine — the full extent of this irony will not be lost on any European who realizes just how much of his/her taxes now go to protect and subsidize the French dairy industry.
In 1813, a French man named Michel Eugène Chevreul discovered something he called “margaric acid” (which later was learned to be a combination of stearic acid and palmitic acid). The substance was the colour of pearls, so he coined a name for it based on the Greek word for pearls, “margarites”.
By the mid-1800s, it was clear that a cheaper butter alternative was needed to feed the army and the working classes. During the Paris Exposition of 1866, Napoleon III announced a competition to decide who would do the research. A man named Hippolyte Mège-Mouries (1817-1880), a French chemist, won the competition (it was pretty fixed, anyway), and got both the funding and the right to conduct his research at the Imperial farm called “Faisanderie” in Vincennes. There, he invented a butter substitute he called “oleomargarine”. He made it based on beef fat, which he clarified, put under pressure to extract liquid from, mixed with water and butyrin, and let solidify.
In 1869, he patented the process in England and in France. This wasn’t Mège-Mouries’ first venture into the food world: in 1861 he received not only a gold medal but the Légion d’honneur to boot from Napoléon III for having developed more efficient methods of bread production for the French army. Mège-Mouries sold his European margarine patents in 1871 to a Dutch firm called Jurgens. He was granted an American patent in 1873.
Early versions started off being made with beef tallow (suet), milk and water. Later variations had it made from whale oil, lard, and vegetable oils such as coconut, cottonseed or olive. Unilever began making margarine in the UK in 1878 from whale oil.
During the Industrial Revolution, when people left the countryside for the cities, ordinary people had a hard time getting access to any source of dietary fat. Butter was out of the question: it was already too expensive for working people, even before the price of butter doubled between 1850 and 1870 in Europe. In America, the price of butter had been falling somewhat owing to an increasing supply, though still nowhere near enough to make it affordable to the average working man’s family. When margarine became available for people to buy, it started to drive back down the high butter prices, which the dairy producers had of course come to think of as normal, so they cried “unfair”.
The arguments that dairy industries used to suppress margarine was that it was unwholesome, it cheated consumers, and it was impure (butter itself was often adulterated with other ingredients and was itself, and still is, coloured with annatto to make it look better.) All over the world, dairy industries coaxed their respective governments to suppress margarine.
When first introduced in North America, States and Provinces with strong dairy lobbies flexed their muscle to prevent margarine from being sold with yellow colour in it to consumers. While butter producers were allowed to colour their butter with annatto, margarine makers were forced to sell their product as a very pale, unappealing white colour. Manufacturers got around this by including with the margarine a small packet of yellow colouring, which you had to stir in yourself at home. Later, the margarine came in a plastic package with a dye capsule inside in the middle. You squeezed the package to pop the capsule, releasing the dye, and then kneaded the package before opening it.
By the end of the 1800s, coloured margarine had been prohibited in Australia, Denmark, France, Russia and New Zealand (New Zealand went on to make margarine in any form completely illegal in 1908).
The UK passed only light restrictions. In 1887, Parliament passed a law saying that it could not be called butter, and that the places of manufacture had to be registered and inspected.
The Netherlands was also an exception to the repression of margarine going on around the world. Even though the Dutch were and remain a great dairy people, the Netherlands passed only light restrictions in 1908, similar to the British ones, but with the third, added condition that it could not be made or sold where butter was.
Margarine in America
Margarine production started in America in 1875.
Congress passed a tax on margarine in 1886 of 2 cents a pound (as Congress didn’t have the federal constitutional authority to ban the product completely). Congress had to call the margarine tax a “revenue” measure, because constitutionally that was their only basis on which to levy a tax.
In 1884 Vermont and then West Virginia in 1891 passed laws requiring margarine to be dyed pink. New Hampshire passed the same pink law on 26 Aug 1885, but repealed it on 23 May 1898 (somehow, this translated into the Internet myth that it is now illegal to dye margarine pink in New Hampshire). The pink colour wasn’t chosen at random: a cow that is ill with mastitis will give pink milk. Back then, people were closer to the farm and would probably have made the association with the colour of bad milk. Any States that did pass “pink” laws, though, had to repeal them in 1902 when the American Supreme Court struck down “forced coloration” of margarine.
New York and New Jersey were the first to ban coloured margarine. Missouri made it a crime to even possess margarine.
In 1901, Congress raised the federal tax on coloured margarine to 10 cents a pound, and lowered the tax on uncoloured margarine to 1/4 cent.
By 1904 in America, margarine consumption had dropped by 2/3 owing to the high tax. Over the next few years, though, butter manufacturers raised their prices back up taking advantage of the weakened competition. They may have tried to cash in too soon, though: with the price of butter ratcheting back upwards, sales of margarine revived. By 1910, sales levels were higher than they had been in 1904.
By the Second World War, margarine in America was being made almost entirely with vegetable oils. In 1941, a National Nutrition Conference raised the profile of margarine as a healthy food. Margarine became the standard table spread in America as animal fats were much in demand for the war effort. Out of those years emerged the first generation of people who had never tasted butter and who, when they did, still preferred margarine as that was what they grew up on.
The limited availability of butter, combined with people now actually having a preference for putting margarine in their shopping basket, caused more consumers to really start noticing the tax barrier between them and this food item.
By 1947, butter prices had soared to all-time highs, and the outcry from various consumer groups intensified. The Democrats, elected under President Truman, picked this up. In 1950, the federal taxes were repealed, coming into effect in 1951.
Various state restrictions remained, however. Wisconsin, the dairy state, was the last one to repeal margarine restrictions in 1967 (however, as of 2003, it does remain illegal to serve coloured margarine in Wisconsin restaurants unless a customer specifically requests it).
In a strange “back to the future” twist, Parkay Margarine introduced squeezable Electric Blue and Shocking Pink Parkay Margarine for kids in 2001. The product didn’t sell well; it was discontinued by late 2003.
Margarine in Australia
To be called margarine in Australia, it must be at least 80% fat. Anything less than that is an “Edible oil spread.” Both margarines and spreads must be enriched by law with Vitamin D. Margarine could not be sold coloured until the 1960s.
In Canada, the sale of margarine was banned outright across the entire Dominion from 1886 until 1948, when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the ban. The only brief exception was the period from 1917 to 1923 owing to shortages of dairy products caused by the First World War. When the ban was re-instated there was vigorous lobbying from charities pleading for politicians not to do it, because working people could not afford butter. The Mackenzie King government said, however, that it was forced to act on a pledge it had made to farmers that the lifting of the ban would only be temporary.
With no competition, the price of butter skyrocketed. In 1935, at the height of the Depression, the government was forced to divert taxpayers’ money into subsidizing the price of butter, to help keep prices at least within Christmas treat range for working people. All throughout the Depression, people who didn’t have any money to spare were denied the opportunity to buy margarine and forced to buy the more expensive butter.
With the striking down of the ban in 1948, the butter producers were particularly galled. The price of butter had been government controlled in Canada, guaranteeing them a minimum price, which would be less meaningful once consumers had a choice. Smarting over losing the outright national ban, they turned to provincial governments to help repress margarine. Provincial governments in Canada then slapped laws on what colour margarine could be. In some places, it had to be sold without any added colouring whatsoever. In other places, it had to be dyed a lurid yellow.
Newfoundland joined Canada until 1949. The British wanted to unload Newfoundland and, as governments do when consulting the populace, kept holding referendums on the issue until they got the answer they wanted. Newfoundland had its own margarine company, founded in 1925 and named, oddly enough, the Newfoundland Butter Company (which didn’t produce a stick of butter.) They were obliged to change their name to the Newfoundland Margarine Company when they joined Canada. In return, however, they received a special exemption allowing them to continue selling margarine that was coloured within Newfoundland.
Quebec, however, managed to continue its ban on any form of margarine until 1961. From 1961 to 1987 it was sold coloured in Quebec, until in 1987 the Quebec government banned coloured margarine again. The Unilver company took the government of Quebec to the Supreme Court of Canada over this issue, with the result that in June 2008 coloured margarine was allowed again. Unilever lost a June 2011 court battle, however, over describing their Becel margarine as having a “buttery taste” and were slapped with a fine. Quebec’s very powerful dairy lobby, responsible for this ongoing ban, is also partly responsible for the high cost of milk and cheese to Canadian consumers overall.
Margarine in New Zealand
To be called margarine, it must be at least 80% fat. Anything less than that is an “edible oil spread.” Margarine could not be sold to the public from 1908 until 1974. To get it before 1974, you needed a doctor’s prescription. When the ban was ended, the dairy industry asked for another concession — that margarine manufacturers be forced to colour it blue. This time, Parliament told them to get stuffed. The gravy train for them had ended.
Margarine in UK
In 1887, Parliament passed a law saying that it could not be called butter, and that the places of manufacture had to be registered and inspected.
During the First World War, eating margarine was seen as patriotic to save fats for the war effort.
During the Second World War, the UK was completely cut off from the supplies of butter that it had come to depend on from Australia and New Zealand. Both butter and margarine were rationed. Some people would mix some butter into the margarine to improve the flavour of it.
By law, margarine in the UK is fortified with Vitamins A and D, so that it has the same nutritional qualities as butter.
Some Americans still refer to margarine as “oleo-margarine”.
CBC News Online. “Canada’s conflicted relationship with margarine”. 10 May 2004. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/food/margarine.html in July 2004.
Lawrence, Felicity. I can’t believe it’s not … healthy! Manchester: The Guardian. 23 January 2010. P. 30.
Penner, Rolf. Québec’s Margarine Madness. Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. 26 September 2005.
Valiante, Giuseppe. Becel fined for marketing product as butter. Toronto, Canada: Toronto Sun. 18 June 2011.