Margarine has been butter's fierce competitor since its creation -- a classic example of how food can influence public policy and opinion. Over the years, researchers and government officials have churned back and forth in favor of one over the other. Margarine has evolved dramatically since its inception, and nutritionists consider it either a hero or a villain for its dietary impact. Here’s the spread on margarine.

A Prize Concoction

During the 1860s, French emperor Napoleon III issued a challenge for a low-cost alternative to butter. Chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès rose to the task by processing beef tallow with milk, salt, water, and margaric acid. He named his mixture “oleomargarine” based on oleum, the Latin word for beef fat, and margarite, the Greek word for pearl. The scientist won a generous monetary award and recognition throughout Europe and received a US patent in 1873 for his product.


America Warms Up

When margarine reached the US in the 1870s, American farmers were unenthusiastic, to say the least. The dairy industry successfully lobbied for the creation of the federal Margarine Act in 1886, which imposed a hefty tax on margarine. Some states even banned the alternative altogether. In 1902, however, Wilhelm Normann of Germany patented a hydrogenation process for hardening plant oils. This dramatically expanded market opportunities for these oils, bringing corn, cotton, safflower, sunflower, and soy farmers on board with the butter substitute. Cash became scarce during the depression, and World War II brought butter shortages. As a result, margarine found a place in American homes and the foodservice industry. A century after its creation, margarine rivaled butter in production, becoming the preferred table spread for people seeking to save money or limit saturated fats in their diets.


How Margarine is Made

Margarine is made with vegetable oils, although some brands add cow's milk. Crude vegetable oil is dark, viscous, and pungent, and it undergoes degumming, deodorizing, and filtering processes to become a more translucent liquid. The liquid solidifies as it interacts with hydrogen gas through partial hydrogenation. The result is a smelly, lumpy, gray mass. Margarine manufacturers mix in emulsifiers, then steam-clean and bleach the solid fat into vegetable shortening. After adding synthetic vitamins and flavors to the shortening, produces package margarine in tubs and blocks. The yellow color comes from a natural source such as annatto, per government guidelines that prohibit artificial dyes.


The Ban on PHOs

Thanks to flawed studies in the 1950s vilifying saturated fats, nutrition experts hailed partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) as healthy alternatives to butter for decades. Until the 2000s, many people were unaware that these alternative oils contain trans fats, lipids far more dangerous than saturated fats. In 2015, the FDA determined that PHOs are not safe for consumption. Consequently, food manufacturers can no longer include PHOs in their products, as of June 18, 2018. The FDA has called for complete removal of PHOs from the marketplace by January 1, 2021.


New Formulations

Margarine producers have responded to the FDA’s directive by revamping their ingredients and processing. They are replacing PHOs with water or liquid vegetable oils, including coconut, olive, avocado, and palm. Through a process called interesterification, they combine unsaturated fatty acids with a solid fat by total hydrogenation. According to the Canada-based Office for Science and Society, this process does not create trans fats. Thus, many of today’s margarine products have less saturated fat and virtually no trans fat compared to earlier products. However, it is too early to determine how these new formulations affect our health.


Unfounded Worries over Saturated Fats

Ancel Key’s revered Seven Continents Study, which commenced in the 1950s and continues today, concluded that saturated fats derived from animal products contribute to an avalanche of maladies in Western society. This research led to calls from the medical community and the government to restrict butter or replace it with unsaturated fats such as those found in margarine. However, recent data challenge the notion that saturated fats are responsible for heart-related and metabolic dysfunction. Scientific evidence for a correlation between saturated fats and elevated blood cholesterol levels was weak from the start. In 2015, Harvard Medical School even admitted that dietary cholesterol has minimal effect on cholesterol in the blood.


How Butter Came to Be

Butter has been around for at least 10,000 years. The word derives from a combination of the ancient Greek words bous for cow and turos, which means cheese. Some historians believe that traveling Arabs made the first batches, as they carried milk on their journeys. Others argue that Eurasian nomads inadvertently churned butter as they carried milk in skin bottles on their journeys. Early butter most likely came from the milk of sheep, goats, and yak -- the ancestors of today’s cows.


Appeal of Natural Ingredients

Butter contains few ingredients that do not undergo drastic modifications, so it appeals to many people who prefer minimally processed foods. It has enjoyed a surge in popularity since trans fats became a hot topic. Some concern persists, however, regarding the presence of hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals in the milk from which butter is made. People hoping to limit their exposure to these substances can buy organic butter from grass-fed cows.


How They Cook Up

Many chefs and foodies maintain that butter is the winning ingredient in baking. Its high-fat content makes it ideal for cakes, cookies, biscuits, and pies. Butter works well for frying, too. Since margarine and butter use different fat sources, their consistencies vary significantly. Margarine has more water, which could affect a recipe intended for butter. For some taste buds, margarine does not impart the rich flavor of real butter. However, trans-fat-free margarine suits the palates of people who prefer non-dairy fat.


What to Look for In Your Margarine

Margarine is a highly processed product, but you may still obtain some health benefits from modest consumption of it. Brands with no trans fats are more prevalent, and many companies include heart-healthy nutrients in their blends, such as omega-3s, vitamins, protein, and calcium. You can also choose products that contain plant sterols known to inhibit the absorption of cholesterol in the bloodstream. Moderation is essential, whatever your preference.


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