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Modern margarine is a highly-processed, non-dairy fatty spread that is intended to imitate butter. Margarine history is surprisingly long – it was originally created as a cheap alternative to butter in the middle of 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.
This article explains some of the most asked questions related to margarine: what is margarine and how does it compare to butter, compulsory and optional margarine ingredients, its long history, and why lately margarine has been replaced by butter.
What is margarine made of?
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 (PHOs), it also contains trans fatty acids.
Industrial Trans fatty acids (iTFAs) have been proven to be harmful to our health and products containing them should be avoided.
How is margarine made?
Since the process of making margarine is complex and involves many steps, I created another article that describes in details what is involved in margarine production. Please click here for more information.
By law, what is allowed as margarine ingredients?
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):
- At least one type of processed fats or oils, from either vegetable, animal or marine origin
- 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
- Any of the following optional ingredients:
- Vitamin D
- Salt – either sodium chloride or potassium chloride
- Carbohydrate sweeteners
- 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
- Main margarine ingredients are: fat or oil from either vegetables, animals or from marine origins; water or milk, proteins.
- Manufacturers can opt to add a wide range of other ingredients.
Example of margarine ingredients of two of the most popular margarine brands
- Purified Water
- Soybean Oil
- Palm and Palm Kernel Oil
- 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-6s) and many are questionable (such as GMOs or artificially obtained additives).
To know more about the differences between butter and margarine and why we should turn to butter, see the article Margarine vs Butter.
- Organic butter is natural, simple and harmless, while there is no guarantee what effects some margarine ingredients may have on your body and what they are.
History of margarine
Margarine (originally called oleomargarine) was invented in 1869 in France. It was originally made of beef fat and skim milk (6).
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.
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.
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.
Since 1911, the production of shortening, made mainly of hydrogenated cotton seed oil, took off considerably. A company called Crisco led the industry.
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 iTFAs in PHOs 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 iTFAs started in the U.S..
The process of phasing out PHOs in the United States took almost 30 years.
It was influenced by other countries, that introduced a ban on iTFAs, 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 iTFAs
- 2006 – FDA’s new legislation in force to include iTFAs in nutrition fact labels
- 2006 – New York City ban introduced on iTFAs in restaurants and bakeries
- 2008 – California ban introduced on iTFAs in restaurants
- 2012 – The Center for Disease Control and Prevention registered an average reduction of 58% of TFAs in blood between 2000 and 2009
- 2013 – FDA announced that PHOs are not safe for humans (not GRAS – generally recognized as safe)
- 2015 – FDA announced orders to completely remove PHOs from foods by 2018. The industry had three years to reformulate their products and substitute the PHOs with other alternatives.
- The history of margarine is about 150 years old.
- Popularity of margarine started to increase in 1920s with the introduction of hydrogenated oils, reached a peak in the 1970s and 1980s, but in the last three decades has been slowly replaced with natural butter.
Popularity of margarine is dropping fast
The popularity of margarine has been declining consistently since the 1990s, when stronger evidence on the negative health effects of iTFAs 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, margarine products have contained large amounts of iTFAs. 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-6s, 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 carbohydrate 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”.
- The popularity of margarine has been dropping, since the emergence of strong evidence showing that iTFAs are detrimental to human health.
- In the last three decades margarine has been slowly replaced with natural, healthy butter.
NUTRITION FACTS VS NUTRITION MYTHS
You will find a summary of the most common nutrition myths and evidence-based nutrition facts here.