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Margarine in a tub

Margarine ( , , or ), as a generic term, can indicate any of a wide range of butter substitutes. In many parts of the world, the market share of margarine and spreads has overtaken that of butter. Margarine is an ingredient in the preparation of many other foods and in recipes is sometimes referred to as oleo.

Margarine naturally appears white or almost white: by forbidding the addition of artificial coloring agents, legislators in some jurisdictions found that they could protect their dairy industries by discouraging the consumption of margarine. Bans on coloration became commonplace in the U.S.marker, Australasia and Canadamarker; and, in some cases, those bans endured for almost 100 years. It did not become legal to sell colored margarine in Australia, for example, until the 1960s.


Margarine originated with the discovery by Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1813 of margaric acid (itself named after the pearly deposits of the fatty acid from Greek or μάργαρον (margarís, -îtēs / márgaron), meaning pearl-oyster or pearl). Scientists at the time regarded margaric acid, like oleic acid and stearic acid, as one of the three fatty acids which, in combination, formed most animal fats. In 1853, the Germanmarker structural chemist, Wilhelm Heinrich Heintz, analyzed margaric acid as simply a combination of stearic acid and of the previously unknown palmitic acid.

In 1869, Emperor Louis Napoleon III of Francemarker 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 Mège-Mouriés invented a substance he called oleomargarine, the name of which became shortened to the trade name "margarine". Mège-Mouriés patented the concept in 1869 and expanded his initial manufacturing operation from France but had little commercial success. In 1871, he sold the patent to the Dutchmarker company “Jurgens”, now part of Unilever.

United States

As early as 1877, the first United States marker states had passed laws to restrict the sale and labeling of margarine. By the mid-1880s, the U.S. federal government had introduced a tax of two cents per pound, and manufacturers needed an expensive license to make or sell the product. Individual states began to require the clear labeling of margarine. The color bans, drafted by the butter lobby, began in the dairy states of New Yorkmarker and New Jerseymarker. In several states, legislatures enacted laws to require margarine manufacturers to add pink colorings to make the product look unpalatable, but the Supreme Court struck down New Hampshire's law and overruled these measures.

By the start of the 20th century, eight out of ten Americans could not buy yellow margarine, and those that could had to pay a hefty tax on it. Bootleg colored margarine became common, and manufacturers began to supply food-coloring capsules so that the consumer could knead the yellow color into margarine before serving it. Nevertheless, the regulations and taxes had a significant effect: the 1902 restrictions on margarine color, for example, cut annual U.S. consumption from 120 million to 48 million pounds (54,000 to 22,000 tons). However, by the end of the 1910s, it had become more popular than ever .

With the coming of World War I, margarine consumption increased enormously, even in unscathed regions like the U.S. In the countries closest to the fighting, dairy products became almost unobtainable and were strictly rationed. The United Kingdommarker, for example, depended on imported butter from Australia and New Zealandmarker, and the risk of submarine attack meant that little arrived.

The long-running rent-seeking battle between the margarine and dairy lobbies continued: In the U.S., the Great Depression brought a renewed wave of pro-dairy legislation; the Second World War, a swing back to margarine. Post-war, the margarine lobby gained power and, little by little, the main margarine restrictions were lifted, the most recent states to do so being Minnesotamarker in 1963 and Wisconsinmarker in 1967. However, some vestiges of the legal restrictions remain in the U.S.: The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act still prohibits the retail sale (in places like grocery stores) of margarine in packages larger than one pound. As of 2008, the sale of yellow margarine remained illegal (although unenforced) in the U.S. state of Missourimarker.


In Canada, margarine was banned from 1886 until 1948 though this ban was temporarily lifted from 1917 until 1923 due to dairy shortages. Nevertheless, bootleg margarine was produced in the neighboring British colony of Newfoundlandmarker from whale, seal and fish oil by the Newfoundland Butter Company (which, in fact, produced only margarine) and was smuggled to Canada where it was widely sold for half the price of butter. The Supreme Court of Canadamarker lifted the margarine ban in 1948 in the Margarine Reference.

In 1950, as a result of a court ruling giving provinces the right to regulate the product, rules were implemented in much of Canada regarding margarine's color, requiring it to be bright yellow or orange in some provinces or colorless in others. By the 1980s, most provinces had lifted the restriction, however, in Ontariomarker it was not legal to sell butter-colored margarine until 1995. Quebecmarker, the last Canadian province to regulate margarine coloring, repealed its law requiring margarine to be colorless in July, 2008.

The development of spreads

Margarine and butter both consist of a water-in-oil emulsion, with tiny droplets of water (minimum 16% of total emulsion content by weight) measuring 10-80 microns in diameter, dispersed uniformly throughout a fat phase which is in a stable crystalline form.

The definition for margarine originally came from the legal definition for butter — both contained a minimum of 16% water and a minimum fat content of 80%. This was adopted by all major producers and became the industry standard.

The principal raw material in the original formulation of margarine was beef fat derived from oleo oil. Shortages in supply soon led to the addition of vegetable oils and between 1900 and 1920 margarine was produced from a combination of animal fats and hardened and unhardened vegetable oils. The depression of the 1930s, followed by the rationing of World War II, led to a reduction in supply of animal fat; and, by 1945, it almost completely disappeared from the market. In the U.S., problems with supply, coupled with changes in legislation, had caused the manufacturers to change over almost completely to vegetable fats by 1950 and the industry was ready for an era of product development.

During WWII rationing, only two types of margarine were available in the UK, a premium brand and a cheaper budget brand. With the end of rationing in 1954 the market was opened to the forces of supply and demand and brand marketing became prevalent. The competition between the major producers was given further impetus with the beginning of commercial television advertising in 1955; and, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, competing companies vied with each other to produce the margarine that tasted most like butter.

In the mid-1960s, the introduction of three lower-fat blends of butter oil and vegetable oils in Scandinavia, called Latt, Lagom and Bregott, clouded the issue of what should be called "margarine" and began the debate that led to the introduction of the term "spread". In 1978, an 80% fat product called Krona, made by churning a blend of dairy cream and vegetable oils, was introduced in Europe; and, in 1982, a blend of cream and vegetable oils called Clover was introduced in the UK by the Milk Marketing Board. The vegetable oil and cream spread I can't believe it's not butter was introduced in the United Statesmarker in 1986 and in the United Kingdommarker and Canadamarker in 1991.


The basic method of making margarine today consists, as it did in Mège-Mouriés day, of emulsifying a blend of purified vegetable oils with skimmed milk, chilling the mixture to solidify it and working it to improve the texture. Animal and vegetable fats are similar compounds with different melting points. Those fats that are liquid at room temperature are generally known as oils. The melting points are largely determined by the presence of carbon-carbon double bonds in the molecule — the higher the number of double bonds, the lower the melting point. The process of manufacturing margarine involves converting animal or vegetable oils into a form where they are relatively solid at room temperature. This was originally achieved by passing hydrogen through the oil in the presence of a nickel catalyst, under controlled conditions, to bind a proportion of the molecules together in order to raise the melting point of the oil and thus "harden" it. Margarines manufactured in this way are said to contain hydrogenated fat. This method is still used today for some margarines although the process has been developed and sometimes other metal catalysts are used such as palladium, however, the relatively high temperatures used in the hydrogenation process tend to flip some of the carbon-carbon double bonds into the "trans" form. If these particular bonds aren't hydrogenated during the process, they will still be present in the final margarine in molecules of trans fats, the consumption of which has been shown to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Modern margarines can be made from any of a wide variety of animal or vegetable fats, mixed with skimmed milk, salt, and emulsifiers. Like butter, margarine is about 80% fat, 20% water and solids, flavored, colored, and fortified with vitamin A, and sometimes D, to match butter's nutritional contribution to the human diet. The oil is pressed from seeds, purified, hydrogenated, and then fortified and colored, either with a synthetic carotene or annatto. The water phase is usually reconstituted, or skimmed milk, that is cultured with lactic acid bacteria to produce a stronger flavor. Emulsifiers such as lecithin help disperse the water phase evenly throughout the oil, and salt and preservatives are also commonly added. This oil and water emulsion is then heated, blended, and cooled. The softer tub margarines are made with less hydrogenated, more liquid, oils than block margarines.

Margarines made from vegetable oils are especially important in today's market, as they are lower in saturated fat than butter and are generally promoted as the healthier option, although this view has been challenged.

Three main types of margarine are common:
  • Traditional margarines, which contain saturated fats, are mostly made from vegetable oils.
  • Blended margarines, high in mono- or polyunsaturated fats, which are made from safflower, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed, rapeseed, or olive oil.
  • Hard, generally uncolored margarine for cooking or baking. (Shortening)

Blending with butter

Many popular table spreads sold today are blends of margarine and butter or buttermilk - the liquid that is left-over from the churning of butter. Blending, which is used to improve the taste of margarine, was long illegal in countries such as the United States and Australia. Under European Union directives, a margarine product cannot be called "butter," even if most of it consists of natural butter. In some European countries butter-based table spreads and margarine products are marketed as "butter mixtures."

Butter mixtures now make up a significant portion of the table spread market. The brand "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" spawned a variety of similarly-named spreads that can now be found on supermarket shelves all over the world, with names like "Utterly Butterly," "You'd Butter Believe it," "Beautifully Butterfully," and "Butterlicious." These butter mixtures avoid the restrictions on labelling, with marketing techniques that imply a strong similarity to real butter. Such marketable names present the product to consumers differently from the required product labels that call margarine "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil."

Market acceptance

Margarine, particularly polyunsaturated margarine, has become a major part of the Western diet and overtook butter in popularity in the mid 20th century. In the United States, for example, in 1930 the average person ate over of butter a year and just over of margarine. By the end of the 20th century, an average American ate around of butter and nearly of margarine.

The United States imports and exports of margarine annually.

Margarine has a particular market to those who observe the Jewish dietary laws laws of Kashrut. Kashrut forbids the mixing of meat and dairy products, and hence there are strictly Kosher non-dairy margarines available. These are often used by the Kosher consumer to adapt recipes that use meat and butter, or in baked goods that will be served with meat meals. The 2008 Passover margarine shortage caused much consternation within the Kosher-observant community.

Margarine also provides a vegan substitute for butter.


Discussions concerning the nutritional value of margarines and spreads revolve around two aspects — the total amount of fat, and the types of fat (saturated fat, trans fat). Usually, a comparison between margarine and butter is included in this context as well.

Amount of fat

Fat is an essential part of nutrition as it is needed in the production of cell membranes and several hormone-like compounds called eicosanoids. In addition, fat acts as carrier for fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

The roles of butter and traditional margarine (80% fat) are similar with respect to their energy content, but low-fat margarines and spreads are also widely available.

Saturated fat

Vegetable fats can contain anything between 7% and 86% saturated fatty acids. Liquid oils (unhardened canola oil, sunflower oil) tend to be on the low end, while tropical oils (coconut oil, palm kernel oil) and fully hardened (hydrogenated) oils are at the high end of the scale. A margarine blend is a mixture of both types of components, and will rarely exceed 50% saturated fats. Exceptions are some traditional kitchen margarines or products that have to maintain stability under tropical conditions. Generally, firmer margarines contain more saturated fat.

Regular butterfat contains about 65% saturated fats, although this varies somewhat with season. One tablespoon of butter contains over 7g of saturated fat.

Unsaturated fat

Consumption of unsaturated fatty acids has been found to decrease LDL cholesterol levels and increase HDL cholesterol levels in the blood, thus reducing the risk of contracting cardiovascular diseases.

There are two types of unsaturated oils: mono- and poly-unsaturated fats both of which are recognized as beneficial to health in contrast to saturated fats. Some widely grown vegetable oils, such as rapeseed (and its variant canola), sunflower, safflower, and olive oils contain high amounts of unsaturated fats. During the manufacture of margarine, some of the unsaturated fats may be converted into saturated fats or trans fats in order to give them a higher melting point so that they are solid at room temperatures.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which have been found especially good for health. This is one of the two Essential fatty acids, so called because humans cannot manufacture it and must get it from food. Most modern Western diets are severely deficient in it. Omega-3 fatty acids are mostly obtained from oily fish caught in high-latitude waters. They are comparatively uncommon in vegetable sources, including margarine. However, one type of Omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-lineloic acid (ALA) can be found in some vegetable oils. Flax oil contains 30-50% of ALA, and is becoming a popular dietary supplement to rival fish oils; both are often added to premium margarines. An ancient oil plant, camelina sativa, has recently gained popularity because of its high Omega-3 content (30-45%), and it has been added to some margarines. Hemp oil contains about 20% ALA. Small amounts of ALA are found in vegetable oils such as soybean oil (7%), rapeseed oil (7%) and wheat germ oil (5%).

  • Omega-6 fatty acids Omega-6 fatty acids are also important for health. They include the essential fatty acid linoleic acid (LA), which is abundant in vegetable oils grown in temperate climates. Some, such as hemp (60%) and the common margarine oils corn (60%), cottonseed (50%) and sunflower (50%), have large amounts, but most temperate oil seeds have over 10% LA. Margarine is very high in omega-6 fatty acids. Modern Western diets are frequently quite high in Omega-6 but very deficient in Omega-3. The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is typically 10:1 to 30:1. Large amounts of omega-6 decreases the effect of omega-3. Therefore it is recommended that the ratio in the diet should be less than 4:1, although optimal ratio may be closer to 1:1.

Trans fat

Unlike other dietary fats, trans fats are not essential, and they do not promote good health. The consumption of trans fats increases one's risk of coronary heart disease by raising levels of LDL cholesterol and lowering levels of HDL cholesterol. Trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils are more harmful than naturally occurring oils.

Several large studies indicate a link between consumption of high amounts of trans fat and coronary heart disease, and possibly some other diseases. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the American Heart Association (AHA) all have recommended people to limit intake of trans-fat.

In the US, partial hydrogenation is common as a result of preference for homegrown oils. However, since the mid-1990s, many countries around the world had started to move away from using partially hydrogenated oils. This led to the production of new margarine varieties that contain less or no trans fat.

Since 2003, food manufacturers in the US label their products (following government regulations) as "0g" trans-fat, which effectively means less than 500 mg trans-fat per serving; however, no fat is entirely free of trans fats. For example, natural butterfat contains 2-5% trans-fatty acids (mainly trans-vaccenic acid, a variant of the normal vaccenic acid). However, the naturally occurring trans-fatty acids rumenic acid and trans-vaccenic acid (trans-vaccenic acid is used by the human body to make rumenic acid) show anticarcinogenic properties, and thus appear, quite opposite to the artificially created trans-fatty acids.

Note that US and Canadian regulation of margarine contents are not the same, so the US regulatory actions may not have taken place in Canada or may have taken place in a different form.


Excessive cholesterol is a health risk because fatty deposits gradually clog up the arteries. This will cause blood flow to the brain, heart, kidneys and other parts of the body to become less efficient. Cholesterol, though needed metabolically, is not essential in the diet. The human body makes cholesterol in the liver, producing about 1g of cholesterol each day or 80% of the needed total body cholesterol. The remaining 20% comes directly from food intake.

Therefore overall intake of cholesterol as food has less effect on blood cholesterol levels than the type of fat eaten. However, some individuals are more responsive to dietary cholesterol than others. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that healthy people should not consume more than 300 mg of cholesterol each day.

Butter contains approximately 33 mg of cholesterol in each tablespoon. Margarine contains only negligible amounts of or no cholesterol.

Plant sterol/stanol esters

Plant sterol esters or plant stanol esters have been added to some margarines and spreads because of their cholesterol lowering effect.

Several studies have indicated that consumption of about 2 grams per day provides a reduction in LDL cholesterol of about 10%.Sterol/stanol esters are tasteless and odorless, and have the same physical and chemical properties as most fats. However, they do not enter the blood stream but instead pass through the gut which makes a low-fat margarine spread a good vehicle for the delivery of sterol/stanol esters.

Margarine today

European Union

Many of the spreads sold in the European Union today are not defined as margarine. Under European Union directives, margarine is defined as:

A water-in-oil emulsion derived from vegetable/animal fats, with a fat content of at least 10% but less than 90%, that remain solid at a temperature of 20°C and are suitable as spread. Fat content excluding the salt must be at least 2/3 of the dry matter.
Margarines may not have a milk fat content of more than 3%. For blends and blended spreads, the milk fat may be between 10% and 80%

Many Member States currently require the mandatory addition of vitamins A and D to margarine and fat spreads for reasons of public health. Voluntary fortification of margarine with vitamins had been practiced by manufacturers since 1925, but in 1940 with the advent of the war, certain Governments’ took action to safeguard the nutritional status of their nation by making the addition of vitamin A and D compulsory. This mandatory fortification was justified in the view that margarine was being used to replace butter in the diet.

  • United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom there are no brands of spread on sale which contain any partially hydrogenated oils. Although fortification with Vitamin A & D is still mandatory for margarine, it is only a voluntary requirement for other spreads.


Canadian standard B.09.016 states that margarine shall be:
"A plastic or fluid emulsion of fat, or water in fat, oil, or fat and oil that are not derived from milk and shall contain not less than 80% fat and not less than 3300 IU of vitamin A and 530 IU of vitamin D".
Calorie reduced margarine is specified in standard B.09.017 as:
"Containing not less than 40% fat and having 50% of the calories normally present in margarine".


Margarine is common in Australian supermarkets. Sales of the product have decreased in recent years due to consumers "reducing their use of spreads in their daily diet". It was not legal to sell colored margarine in Australia until the 1960s.

The product's availability in New Zealand has historically paralelled Australia.

See also


  1. C.G. Lehmann, Lehrbuch der physiologischen Chemie, Verlag Wilhelm Engelmann, Leipzig (1853) p71.
  2. Science Power 9: Atlantic Edition, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited. ISBN 0-07-560905-3.
  3. Dupre R: Margarine Regulation in North America Since 1886', Journal of Economic History, Vol 59, No 2, June 1999, Pages 353-371.
  4. Intrastate sales of colored oleomargarine
  7. D.W. de Bruijne, A. Bot, Fabricated Fat-based Foods, in: Food Texture — Measurement and Perception (editor A.J. Rosenthal), Aspen, Gaithersburg, 1999, pp. 185-227.
  9. PMID 16611951
  10. W.C. Willett, M.J. Stampfer, J.E. Mason, G.A. Colditz, F.E. Speizer, B.A. Rosner, L.A. Sampson, C.H. Hennekes, Intake of trans fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease among women, Lancet 341, 581-585 (1993)
  11. F.B. Hu, M.J. Stampfer, J.E. Manson, E. Rimm, G.A. Colditz, B.A. Rosner, C.H. Hennekens, W.C. Willett, Dietary Fat Intake and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Women, New England Journal of Medicine 337, 1491-1499 (1997)
  12. K. Hayakawa, Y.Y. Linko, P. Linko, The role of trans fatty acids in human nutrition, Journal of Lipid Science and Technology 102, 419-425 (2000)
  13. The Nurses' Health Study (NHS)
  14. E. Flöter, G. van Duijn, Trans-free fats for use in foods, in: Modifying lipids for use in foods (editor F.D. Gunstone), Woodhead, Cambridge, UK, 2006, pp. 429-443.
  15. G. van Duijn, Technical aspects of trans reduction in modified fats, Oléagineux, Corps Gras, Lipides, 12, 422-426 (2005)
  16. See, e.g., P.S. Anand et al., J. Dairy Res. 71, 66-73 (2004)

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