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Margarine is a generic term used to indicate any of a wide range of butter substitutes. In many parts of the world, margarine is now the best selling table spread although butter and olive oil also command large market shares. It is used as an ingredient in the preparation of many other foods.


The term margarine has a confusing history. It derives from the discovery of margaric acid by Michael Chevreul[?] in 1813 (itself named after the pearly deposits of the fatty acid, from Greek margarites). Margaric acid was thought to be one of the three fatty acids which, in combination, formed most animal fats, the others being oleic acid and stearic acid. In 1853, Heintz discovered that margaric acid was, in fact, simply a combination of stearic acid and the previously unknown palmitic acid.

In the 1860s French Emperor Louis Napoleon III offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory substitute for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes. French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouriez[?] invented a substance he called oleomargarine, which became, in shortened form, the trade name Margarine and is now the generic term for any of a range of broadly similar edible oils. It is also sometimes shortened to oleo.

Oleomargarine was made by taking clarified beef fat, extracting the liquid portion under pressure, and then allowing it to solidify. When combined with butyrin[?] and water, it made a cheap and more-or-less palatable butter substitute. Sold as Margarine or under any of a host of other trade names, butter substitutes soon became big business - but too late to help Mege-Mouriez: although he expanded his initial manufacturing operation from France to the United States in 1873, he had little commercial success. By the end of the decade, however, artificial butters were on sale in both the old world and the new.

From that time on, two main trends would dominate the margarine industry: on the one hand a series of refinements and improvements to the product and the manufacturing of it, on the other, a long and bitter struggle with the dairy industry, which defended its monopoly with vigour. As early as 1877, the first American states had passed laws to restrict the sale and labelling of margarine. By the mid-1880s, the United States federal government had introduced a tax of 2c a pound and an expensive license was required to make or sell it. More importantly, individual states began to require that it be clearly labelled, and not passed off as real butter.

The key to slowing margarine sales (and protecting the established dairy industries), however, turned out to be restricting its colour. Margarine is naturally white or almost white: by forbidding the addition of artificial colouring agents, legislators found that they could keep margarine off kitchen tables. The bans became commonplace around the world and would endure for almost 100 years. It did not become legal to sell coloured margarine in Australia, for example, until the 1960s.

In United States, the colour bans began in the dairy states of New York and New Jersey. These were drafted by the butter lobby. At one stage laws were enacted to force margarine manufacturers to add pink colorings to make the product look unpalatable, but were overruled by the Supreme Court. By the start of the 20th century eight out of ten Americans were unable to buy yellow margarine, and those that could had to pay a hefty tax on it. Bootleg coloured margarine became common, and manufacturers began to supply food colouring capsules so that the housewife could knead the yellow colour into margarine before serving it. Nevertheless, the regulations and taxes had a significant effect: the 1902 Margarine Act amendments, for example, cut US consumption from 120 million pounds to 48 million pounds, but by the end of the decade it was more popular than ever.

With the coming of World War I, margarine consumption increased enormously, even in relatively lightly hit regions like the USA. In the countries closest to the fighting, dairy products became almost unobtainable and were strictly rationed. The United Kingdom, for example, depended on imported butter from Australia and New Zealand and the risk of submarine attack meant that little arrived. Margarine became the staple spread, and butter a rare and expensive luxury.

The long-running battle between the margarine industry and the dairy lobby continued: in the USA the Great Depression brought a renewed wave of pro-dairy legislation, the Second World War a swing back to margarine. Post war, the consumer lobby gained power and, little by little, the main margarine restrictions were lifted: the last state to do so being Wisconsin in 1967.

Margarine today

In the meantime, margarine manufacturers had made many changes. Modern margarine can be made from any of a wide variety of animal or vegetable fats, and is often mixed with skim milk[?], salt, and emulsifiers[?]. Liquid fats are transformed into suitable substrates by the chemical process of hydrogenation. Many popular table spreads today are blends of margarine and butter - something that was long illegal in the United States and Australia and no doubt other parts of the world too - and are designed to combine the lower cost and easy-spreading of artificial butter with the taste of the real thing.

Under directives, adopted in European Community, the margarine like products cannot be named with common name "butter", even if the most of it consists of natural butter. In some European countries butter based table spreads and margarine products are marketed as "butter mixtures".

Three main types of margarine are common:

  • Hard, generally uncoloured margerine for cooking or baking, which contains a high proportion of animal fat.
  • "Traditional" margarines for such uses as spreading on toast, which contain a relatively high percentage of saturated fats[?] and are made from either animal or vegetable oils.
  • Margarines high in mono- or poly-unsaturated fats, which are made from the oil of safflower[?] seeds, sunflower seeds, soybeans[?], cottonseed[?], or olives[?], and which are said to be more healthful.

Margarine, particularly polyunsaturated margarine, has become a major part of the Western diet. In the United States, for example, in 1930 the average person ate over 8kg of butter a year and just over 1kg of margarine. By the end of the 20th century, an average American ate just under 2kg of butter and nearly 4kg of margarine.

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