Lessons from history

Dairy products – foodstuffs made from mammalian milk.
Food Standards Agency UK

Cute child - check, sexist humour - check, false health claims - double check.

I hope you don’t eat margarine. Just like I hope you don’t smoke, drink alcohol excessively or do illicit drugs. Since margarine hasn’t been on my shopping radar for a while I just walk right past the brightly lit refrigerated shelves with hundreds of colourful tubs and packages straight to the “naughty corner” where a few lonely packs of butter have found refuge.

But recently a thought struck me as I was passing all that splendour: what is margarine doing in the dairy section of the supermarket? Or listed as “dairy” on the supermarket websites?

I will not bore you with the debunking of the so-called health claims of margarine. They all go along the lines of “we will save you from a certain death caused by the saturated fat in butter clogging your arteries”. Yawn. You can read  about the saturated fats here (Gary Taubes “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?”), here (Stephan Guyenet “Butter, Margarine and Heart Disease”) and here (Sylvan Lee Weinberg “The Diet-Heart Hypothesis: a Critique”).

Instead, I want to step away from the health conundrum to explore the history of margarine and its amazing rise from a lab-created inferior butter substitute to a major item in our shopping carts. I found myself more and more intrigued by the history (of food) as I get older which is scary because I find myself turning into my father: “Back in the days of the Empress Catherine the Great…” If you are under 30 and you are already bored come back in a few years.

History of margarine

Surprisingly enough, we can actually blame the French for the birth of margarine. The shortages of butter were crippling for the fat-loving nation in the middle of the 19th century. The war with Prussia was on the horizon and everyone knows you can’t feed cereal to soldiers. At the Paris World Exhibition in 1966 Louis Napoleon III announced a contest for the development of an acceptable butter substitute. In 1869 a French chemist by the name of Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés applied for a patent for a substance made from beef tallow emulsified with skim milk. He called it margarine, after a margaric fatty acid (considered a separate fatty acid at the time), and was subsequently awarded the government prize. The food industry began mass production but the product never took off. We can only imagine what the French public thought of spreading a colourless derivative of beef fat onto their morning croissants. My sympathies are entirely with them.

The Dutch firm Jurgen, one of the founding firms of Unilever (aha!),  bought the patent in 1870 and made a few improvements on the taste and the marketing. Other Northern European countries got in on the act, realising the potential of the new product.  It took awhile for the dairy industry to see the looming danger but by the end of the 19th century several countries had legislation in place to protect butter from the new kid on the block. The most bizarre of the margarine regulation laws was to have it coloured unappetising pink. Not surprisingly, it didn’t last.

As you can see at this point margarine is still largely an animal product. But with the growing shortages around the time of World War I and the development of food science new raw materials were required. The solution came in form of “vegetable” oils: soybean, cottonseed, canola, corn.

Quotation marks around “vegetable” are my little act of defiance against the food  industry which wants us to believe that these are vegetables because it makes it sound oh so wholesome. Until I see a potato oil on the shelf they are not vegetable oils (not even corn which is, of course, a grain)

The problem with oils is that they are, well, oily. But turns out that if you push hydrogen atoms through the oil under pressure in the presence of a metal catalyst such as nickel or palladium, you can solidify the oil. This basic biochemistry site gives a good description of what happens with unsaturated acids during hydrogenation.

Partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids leads to the formation of trans-fatty acids. Yep, we all know they are the real bad guys. Oops.

Over the next few decades margarine continued to develop as a combination of animal fats and seed oils. World War II brought the food rationing, relaxed legislation, (some might say more money behind the margarine manufacturers) which led to the margarine taking over the spread role from butter for the first time. The dairy industry was running out of ideas; their last resort was the colour advantage. Margarine companies were not allowed by law to mix yellow colouring into their product however they successfully circumvented that difficulty by selling a separate colouring which a housewife could mix with the margarine and serve to the unsuspecting dinner guests. The animal fat portion all but disappeared as the grain industries swelled up with government subsidies, especially in the US.

In the post war 1950 the diet-heart hypothesis started to make waves in the scientific and nutrition world and all of a sudden margarine went from a inferior and apologetic butter substitute for the poor to a heavily marketed health product. Housewives did not have to be ashamed of serving margarine in a butter dish any longer. Dr Ancel Keys said it was ok.

The rest, as they say, is history.  The word “margarine” is not even used very much anymore. Now we buy “spreads“, some of them are a combination of dairy and seed oils, some are pure seed oils promoted for their “heart healthy” polyunsaturated fat content. It is practically impossible to tease out which is which.

"When school is out each child needs their sandwich with Jurgen's Planta" 1916-1917. Run, kiddies, run!

Manufacturers still have to tread a thin marketing line between taste (the smooth softness and dairy aroma of butter) and the perceived unhealthfulness of saturated fats. Oh, how the tables have turned.  Now they apologise for butter. The fundamental difference between two products has been carefully ironed out and nowadays the terms “butter” and “margarine” are mostly interchangeable in the eyes of general public. So much so that if you ask for “butter” in a restaurant you are just as likely to get margarine.  If you attempt to raise the issue with an unsuspecting young waitress (poor thing,  she had no idea what she was in for when she was approaching my table), you’d be met with a blank look. Isn’t it the same thing? No, my dear, they are not. Just like when I order a piece of steak I don’t expect you to bring out a slab of tofu coloured red.

When can we restart calling these “foods” what they actually are? Imitation products,  lab-created and mass-produced to utilise agrarian commodities and chemically manipulated to suit the nutritional fad of the month.

And here is a little video on how to make butter.

How to make butter