Food made from one or more vegetable or animal fats or oils mixed with milk and other ingredients. It is used in cooking and as a spread as a substitute for butter. Margarine was developed by the French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès in the late 1860s. The fats used have varied widely; polyunsaturated oils such as corn, canola, and sunflower oil, considered more healthful than saturated fats, are common today.
Learn more about margarine with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Margarine (/ˈmɑrdʒəriːn/ or /ˈmɑrgəriːn/), as a generic term, can indicate any of a wide range of butter substitutes. In many parts of the world, margarine has become the best-selling table spread, although butter and olive oil also command large market shares. Margarine is an ingredient in the preparation of many other foods. In some regions people may refer to margarine as butter in informal speech, but in several countries laws forbid food packaging to refer to margarine as "butter". Recipes sometimes refer to margarine as oleo.
Margarine has a long and sometimes confusing history. Its name originates with the discovery by Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1813 of "margaric acid" (itself named after the pearly deposits of the fatty acid from Greek μαργαρίς, -ρῖτης or μάργαρον (margarís, -îtēs / márgaron), meaning "a pearl-oyster" or "a 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 German 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 France 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". Margarine now refers generically to any of a range of broadly similar edible oils. The name oleomargarine is sometimes abbreviated to oleo.
Manufacturers produced oleomargarine by taking clarified vegetable 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 a substantial market segment, but too late to help Mège-Mouriés: 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 both the old world and the new could buy artificial butters.
From that time on, two main trends would dominate the margarine industry: on one hand a series of refinements and improvements to the product and its manufacture, and on the other a long and bitter struggle with the dairy industry, which defended itself from the margarine industry with vigor. As early as 1877 the first U.S. states had passed laws to restrict the sale and labeling of margarine. By the mid-1880s the United States federal government had introduced a tax of two cents per pound, and devotees needed an expensive license to make or sell the product. Individual states began to require the clear labeling of margarine, banning passing it off as real butter.
The key to slowing margarine sales (and protecting the established dairy industries), however, emerged as restricting its color. Margarine naturally appears white or almost white: by forbidding the addition of artificial coloring agents, legislators found that they could keep margarine off kitchen tables. Bans on coloration became commonplace around the world and endured for almost 100 years. It did not become legal to sell colored margarine in Australia, for example, until the 1960s.
With the coming of World War I, margarine consumption increased enormously, even in unscathed regions like the United States. 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 rent-seeking battle between the margarine and dairy lobbies continued: In the United States, 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 last state to do so being Wisconsin 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 of margarine in packages larger than one pound.
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 skimmed milk, salt, and emulsifiers. Margarine made from vegetable oils is especially important in today's market, as it provides a vegan and pareve substitute for butter. Nearly all margarine is salted, which makes shortening (which contains no salt) a better choice for baking.
In terms of microstructure, margarine is a water-in-oil emulsion, containing dispersed water droplets of typically 5-10 µm diameter. The amount of crystallizing fat in the continuous oil+fat phase determines the firmness of the product. In the relevant temperature range, saturated fats contribute most to the amount of crystalline fat, whereas monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats contribute relatively little to the amount of crystalline fat in the product. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats and oils can be transformed into suitable substrates by the chemical process of hydrogenation, which renders them solid at room temperature. Full hydrogenation results in saturated fats only, but partial hydrogenation will lead to the formation of trans-fats as well.
Three main types of margarine are common:
Many popular table spreads today are blends of margarine and butter — something that was long illegal in countries including the United States and Australia — and are designed to combine the lower cost and easy-spreading of artificial butter with the taste of the real thing.
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 18 lb (8 kg) of butter a year and just over 2 lb (900g) of margarine. By the end of the 20th century, an average American ate just under 4 lb (1.8 kg) of butter and nearly 8 lb (3.6 kg) of margarine.
Under European Union directives, margarine products 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".
These "butter mixtures" compose 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 be found on supermarket shelves all over the world. With names like "Utterly Butterly," "You'd Butter Believe it," "Unbelievable! This Is Not Butter," and "Butterlicious," these butter mixtures avoid the restrictions on labeling with marketing techniques that imply a strong similarity to real butter.
The United States imports 10 billion pounds (4.5 million tons) of margarine a year. Additionally, the United States exports 2 billion pounds (900,000 tons) of margarine annually.
Margarine has a particular market to Orthodox Jews. The laws of Kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) forbid the mixing of meat and dairy products, and hence there are strictly Kosher margarines available, which are often used by Jews adapting recipes that use meat and butter to be Kosher.
The total amount of fat eaten isn't really linked with any disease. The roles of butter and traditional margarine (80% fat) are similar with respect to their energy content, but low-fat margarines and spreads are widely available.
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 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 fatty acids on fat. 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 fatty acids on fat, although this varies somewhat with season. One tablespoon of butter contains over 7g of saturated fat.
There are two types of unsaturated oils — mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Their nutritional and health effects are recognized 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.
Trans fats occur naturally in vegetable oils in only tiny quantities. However, they are a deliberate consequence of partial hydrogenation of light oils, intended to "harden" the oil sufficiently for it to take on the eating quality of butter oil. In contrast, full hydrogenation generates few trans fats, but is intended to turn light oils into fully saturated fats. The intended effect of partial hydrogenation is to straighten the molecule of polyunsaturated fatty acids, so that they behave more like saturated fats. These trans fatty acids are used by the body like saturated fats, mainly as fuel, but tend to block the use of Omega-3 and Omega-6 for vital bodily functions. They have been indicted as worse for health than even the well-publicized saturated fats in butter and meat.
Particularly in the US, partial hydrogenation has been common as a result of national dependence on a limited number of vegetable oil sources, US-grown oils being preferred to tropical oils which are principally saturated fat. However, in other parts of the world, the industry started to move away from using partially hydrogenated oils in the mid-nineties. This led to the production of new margarine varieties that contain less or no trans fat. Many manufacturers in the US now label their products (following government regulations) as "zero grams" trans-fat, which effectively means less than 500 mg trans-fat per serving - 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).
Butter contains approximately 33 mg of cholesterol in each tablespoon. Margarine contains only negligible amounts of or no cholesterol.
Margarine vs. Butter: The Cold, Hard Fats; Great Debate Over Sticks Obscures the Fact That Better Alternatives Are Available
Jul 13, 1999; "Study Rates Stick Margarine as Unhealthiest," read the headline in a major newspaper a few weeks ago. It was referring to...