What is margarine

What is margarine?

Pawel Malczewski
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Short summary

Margarine is a highly-processed product that is composed of a wide range of ingredients.

 This article discusses margarine, its history, what is allowed to be added to margarine products and why its consumption has been dropping since the 1990s. For a quick answer click here.


Modern margarine is a highly-processed, non-dairy fatty spread that is intended  to imitate butter. It was originally created as a cheap alternative to butter in the 19th century.  At that time, there were no concerns with its impact on human health.

Although many types of fats (including animal fats) can be a part of margarine,  its main component is now an emulsion of refined vegetable oils and water. Margarine also contains additives to make its properties as close to butter as possible.

Margarine is mainly used as a spread, for baking and other forms of cooking. It is commonly used in bakery products, such as pastries or cookies.

What is margarine made up of?

Fat components

Margarine, by definition, contains 80% or more of total fat. In the majority of margarine products, most of the fat contents come from soybean oil but also from palm and palm kernel, canola, coconut, corn, olive or sunflower oils.


Many oils used in margarines, such as soybean, canola or corn oils, are sourced from genetically engineered (GE) crops (GMO). The most abundant and commonly used ingredient in margarines is the overall genetically modified soybean oil.

Trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils
If a margarine is made of partially hydrogenated oils, it also contains trans fatty acids. These substances have been proven to be harmful to our health and products containing them should be avoided.

Always check for “trans fats” contents on the product label and for partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list. For more information on how to read labels and to be learn about some tricks used by food manufacturers to hide trans fats in their products, read this article.

By law, what is allowed in margarines?

The following is a list of the components allowed in margarines in the United States. Each of these components must be declared by law and shown on the product label (1)FDA – U.S. Food and Drug Administration. CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Available here.:

  1. At least one type of processed fats or oils, from either vegetable, animal or marine origin
  2. At least one of an aqueous phase ingredient:
    • Water, milk or milk products
    • Protein, such as whey, albumin, casein, caseinate, vegetable proteins and/or soy protein isolate
  3. Any of the following optional ingredients:
    • Vitamin D
    • Salt – either sodium chloride or potassium chloride
    • Carbohydrate sweeteners
    • Emulsifiers
    • Preservatives – a wide range of preservatives can be used within specific amounts (see the list in the reference)
    • Color additives (in the United States beta-carotene is used)
    • Artificial flavoring
    • Acidulants
    • Alkalizers

Sample ingredient list of two of the most popular margarine brands

The following is an example of the ingredient list of the two margarines that are sold most in the U.S. “Country Crock” and “I can’t believe it’s not butter”: (2)I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter. GMO Disclosure. Available here. (3)Country Crock. Country Crock. Frequently Asked Questions. Available here.

  • Purified Water
  • Soybean Oil
  • Palm and Palm Kernel Oil
  • Salt
  • Lecithin (soy) – emulsifier, stabilizer
  • Vinegar – preservative
  • Natural Flavors – derived from either milk or other plant or animal foods
  • A Palmitate
  • Beta-Carotene – for color.

Which is better – butter or margarine?

Butter – natural and simple

Butter is a product that has been used for centuries. It is made of one natural ingredient and requires little processing. Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that saturated fat, causes any harm to human health. There is also no evidence that eating rich in saturated fat butter has any negative health consequences.

Margarine, on the other hand, is a product that contains a wide variety of substances, in order to resemble butter. Many of these ingredients are proven to be harmful to your health in large quantities (such as trans fats or omega-6 fatty acids) and many are questionable (such as GMOs or artificially obtained additives).

History of margarine

The following is a short history of margarine (4)Schleifer D. The Perfect Solution: How Trans Fats Became the Healthy Replacement for Saturated Fats. Technology and Culture. Volume 53, Number 1, January 2012. pp. 94-119. Available here. (5)U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA takes step to remove artificial trans fats in processed foods. Available here.:

    • 1869

      Margarine (originally called oleomargarine) was invented in 1869 in France. It was originally made of beef fat and skim milk (6)van Stuyvenberg JH. Margarine. An economic, social, and scientific history, 1869-1969. Margarine. An economic, social, and scientific history, 1869-1969. 1969 pp.xxiii + 342 pp. Available here.. The main purpose of this invention was to produce a fatty product that would be cheaper than butter and, therefore, more affordable for the army and the poorer residents.

    • 1871

      Margarine based on vegetable oil was invented in 1871. Cotton seed oils were used in combination with animal fat.

    • From 1900s

      In the early 1900s, before the invention of hydrogenation, the production of margarine and shortening had to involve animal fat (such as beef fat) as its saturated fat component.
      Since animal fat was expensive and the demand for these products grew, scientists started to look for a way of converting vegetable oils. Hydrogenation was the answer.

    • 1902

      In 1902, a few years after hydrogenation was discovered, hydrogenation of liquid oils was patented for the first time. However, it took a few years to improve the process and make a palatable butter-like margarine that could be sold commercially.

    • 1911

      Since 1911, the production of shortening, made mainly of hydrogenated cotton seed oil, took off considerably. A company called Crisco led the industry.

    • 1915

      In 1915, the production of hydrogenated margarines increased, with soy oil being commonly used.

    • From 1920s

      Since the 1920s, the use of hydrogenated vegetable oils in margarines and shortening has increased. Industrial scale production started and increased (especially in comparison to animal fats) during the major wars (World War I and II), when animal products became scarce and expensive.

    • From 1930s

      The reduction in cattle supply during the Great Depression and World War II, resulted in a sudden drop in butter production. That provided an opportunity for margarine producers to increase their production.

    • From 1950s

      In the 1950s, medical authorities began the anti-saturated fat campaign. They blamed it for the growing incidence of heart disease. This gave a rise to hydrogenated oil products. As sales of television sets went up, commercial advertising of margarine became a very powerful tool to further increase margarine sales.

    • From 1970s

      In the 1970s, preliminary studies started to emerge showing an association between trans-fat consumption and heart diseases.

    • From 1980s

      In the 1980s, the popularity of partially hydrogenated fats, such as cooking oils and margarines, continued to grow. This was a result of intense anti-saturated fat campaigns organized by consumer group activists.

    • From 1990s

      In the early 1990s, clinical and epidemiological studies clearly showed that trans fats in partially hydrogenated oils cause heart diseases. This discover coincided with the beginning of a rapid decline in margarine consumption.

    • Last 3 decades

      Since the early 1990s, a gradual, but reluctant, phasing out of trans fats started in the U.S..

      The process of phasing out partially hydrogenated oils in the United States took almost 30 years. It was influenced by other countries, that introduced a ban on trans fats, various lawsuits against companies, such as McDonalds and KFC, and a slow reaction from the governments to act, despite strong evidence.

      Here is the progress of phasing out partially hydrogenated fats in the U.S.:

      • 2003 – Denmark introduces ban on trans fats
      • 2006 – FDA’s new legislation in force to include trans fats in nutrition fact labels
      • 2006 – New York City ban on trans fats in restaurants and bakeries
      • 2008 – California ban on trans fats in restaurants
      • 2012 – The Center for Disease Control and Prevention registered an average reduction of 58% of trans fat in blood between 2000 and 2009
      • 2013 – FDA announced that partially hydrogenated oils are not safe for humans (not GRAS – generally recognized as safe)
      • 2015 – FDA announced orders to completely remove partially hydrogenated oils from foods by 2018. The industry had three years to reformulate their products and substitute the partially hydrogenated oils with other alternatives.

Popularity of margarine is dropping fast

The popularity of margarines has been declining consistently since the 1990s, when stronger evidence on the negative health effects of trans fats started to emerge. Even though many margarine manufacturers no longer use partial hydrogenation, the momentum of falling popularity is continuing, while the consumption of butter is steadily increasing.

The explanation may lie in a few factors, such as:

      • There is a loss of trust in what is being put into margarine. For about 100 years, margarines have contained large amounts of trans fats. The current type of ingredients allowed in margarine production doesn’t restore that trust. One of the most controversial ingredients is the use of genetically engineered components, such as soybean or corn oil. The concoction of all these ingredients has made many people shift to natural butter.

      • Anti-saturated fat campaigns are losing popularity. The abundance of evidence, over the last few decades, that dietary saturated fat is actually harmless, increased the consumption of animal fats, including butter.
      • Evidence of the harmful effects of excessive pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, abundant in margarines (and vegetable oils), is now widely available to the public. Margarine is no longer seen as a healthy alternative to butter.
      • Low-fat, high carb diets are still popular and supported by mainstream nutrition and promoted by health organizations and many governments. The fat consumption has been dropping gradually since the 1980s, when dietary fat was declared as “bad”.


Back to top

Margarine is a concoction of artificially modified substances that was created as a cheap substitute for natural butter.

Margarine is now mainly composed of vegetable oils, made from genetically modified soybean, corn or canola oils. These oils are high in pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids.

The popularity of margarine has been dropping since the emergence of strong evidence showing that trans fats, a major component of margarines for the last 100 years, is detrimental to human health.  

Despite the significant reduction of trans fats in margarine production, the momentum of a drastic drop in sales continues. This is consistent with a general trend to eat less fat and to switch back to butter.

More and more consumers are becoming aware that saturated fat (the major constituent of butter) is not as bad as once thought. 

References   [ + ]

1. FDA – U.S. Food and Drug Administration. CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Available here.
2. I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter. GMO Disclosure. Available here.
3. Country Crock. Country Crock. Frequently Asked Questions. Available here.
4. Schleifer D. The Perfect Solution: How Trans Fats Became the Healthy Replacement for Saturated Fats. Technology and Culture. Volume 53, Number 1, January 2012. pp. 94-119. Available here.
5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA takes step to remove artificial trans fats in processed foods. Available here.
6. van Stuyvenberg JH. Margarine. An economic, social, and scientific history, 1869-1969. Margarine. An economic, social, and scientific history, 1869-1969. 1969 pp.xxiii + 342 pp. Available here.

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