The History of Margarine

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Think you know everything there is to know about margarine? Did you know the name comes from an acid it was mistakenly thought to contain? How many states have required any margarine for sale to be bright pink? What is the link to Napoleon?

Some Interesting Facts About Margarine

Travon is a law school student. In his search for some juicy information that he can use for an upcoming debate on food laws, he came across some information about the history of margarine. He found that the production, manufacturing and consumption of margarine hasn't been smooth. Many people were against it, and it was taxed very heavily until 1950 in the United States. More about this soon. Canada also banned margarine until 1948 (except during butter shortages caused by World War I and II) and not lifting the ban on dying margarine yellow until 2008. Thinking this topic could be very useful for his debate, Travon dug deeper into the history and chemical nature of margarine.

What is Margarine, and When Was it Invented?

Travon found that margarine was invented in 1869 by the French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries in response to a contest sponsored by Napoleon III. Butter did not keep so well and was expensive; Napoleon wanted to have a cheap butter substitute to feed his conquering troops. Mege-Mouries was able to mix rendered beef tallow and a small amount of water and milk to form his butter substitute. He called the mixture 'oleomargarine' because he thought it contained oleaic and margaric acids. It was later determined to have neither, but instead contained stearic and palmitic acids. However, the name 'oleomargarine' was already in place and was later shortened to just 'margarine'.

Manufacturing Changes for Margarine

Mege-Mouries' original mixture was stable, much cheaper than butter, tasted nearly as good as butter and even had a pale yellow color. The chemist joined up with a Dutch company, who helped the manufacturing process and also made the product even cheaper by using fats derived from plant oils, especially olive oil. This new process resulted in a white product, so they added yellow dye to make it look more like butter and started creating a market for it. By the mid-1870s it was already being widely produced in the United States.

Women show their thoughts on margarine production

How do you think people who sold butter reacted to this news? Well, they didn't like it, and they eventually were able to get the Margarine Act of 1886 passed. This placed a heavy tax on margarine and required manufacturers to have a license and wholesalers and sellers to keep annual permits. Some states, like Maine, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio, banned the sale of margarine altogether, claiming margarine production harmed dairy farmers and wasn't wholesome like butter. Selling or using margarine in some places even resulted in fines or serving prison time. By 1902, 32 states required margarine to be colored differently than butter - dyed pink, red, brown or black - so as not to compete. These laws were eventually overturned by the Supreme Court. However, Wisconsin, a state with a big dairy industry, allowed this 'pink law' to continue until 1967.

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