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Margarine

Margarine is a generic term used to indicate any of a wide range of butter substitutes. In many parts of the world, margarine is now the best selling table spread, although butter and olive oil also command large market shares. It is used as an ingredient in the preparation of many other foods. Margarine is commonly called butter in informal speech, but (at least in the United States) food packaging is not permitted to refer to margarine as "butter". Recipes sometimes refer to margarine as oleo (see below) or shortening.

History

Margarine has a long and sometimes confusing history. Its name originates with the discovery of "margaric acid" by Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1813 (itself named after the pearly deposits of the fatty acid, from Greek margarites). Margaric acid was thought to be one of the three fatty acids which, in combination, formed most animal fats, the others being oleic acid and stearic acid. In 1853, German chemist Wilhem H. Heintz discovered that margaric acid was, in fact, simply a combination of stearic acid and the previously unknown palmitic acid.

In the 1860s 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, which was shortened to the trade name Margarine. Margarine is now the generic term for any of a range of broadly similar edible oils. Oleomargarine has also been shortened to oleo sometimes.

Oleomargarine was made by taking clarified beef 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 big business — 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, artificial butters were on sale in both the old world and the new.

From that time on, two main trends would dominate the margarine industry: on the one hand a series of refinements and improvements to the product and its manufacture, on the other, a long and bitter struggle with the dairy industry, which defended its monopoly with vigour. As early as 1877, the first American states had passed laws to restrict the sale and labelling of margarine. By the mid-1880s, the United States federal government had introduced a tax of two cents a pound and an expensive license was required to make or sell it. More importantly, individual states began to require that it be clearly labelled, and not passed off as real butter.

The key to slowing margarine sales (and protecting the established dairy industries), however, turned out to be restricting its color. Margarine is naturally white or almost white: by forbidding the addition of artificial colouring agents, legislators found that they could keep margarine off kitchen tables. The bans 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.

In United States, the color bans began in the dairy states of New York and New Jersey. These were drafted by the butter lobby. At one stage laws were enacted to force margarine manufacturers to add pink colorings to make the product look unpalatable, but these were overruled by the Supreme Court. By the start of the 20th century eight out of ten Americans were unable to buy yellow margarine, and those that could had to pay a hefty tax on it. Bootleg colored margarine became common, and manufacturers began to supply food coloring capsules so that the housewife could knead the yellow color into margarine before serving it. Nevertheless, the regulations and taxes had a significant effect: the 1902 Margarine Act amendments, for example, cut U.S. consumption from 120 million to 48 million pounds (54,000 to 22,000 t). However, by the end of the decade it was more popular than ever.

With the coming of World War I, margarine consumption increased enormously, even in relatively lightly hit 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 battle between the margarine industry and the dairy lobby 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 consumer 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 [1].

Margarine today

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 skim milk, salt, and emulsifiers.

In terms of microstructure, margarine is a water-in-oil emulsion, containing dispersed water droplets of typically 5-10 µm diameter. The amount of crystallising 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 mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats contribute relatively little to the amount of crystalline fat in the product. Mono- and poly-unsaturated 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 (see #The Trans fat issue).

Three main types of margarine are common:

  • Hard, generally uncoloured margarine for cooking or baking, which contains a high proportion of animal fat.
  • "Traditional" margarines for such uses as spreading on toast, which contain a relatively high percentage of saturated fats and are made from either animal or vegetable oils.
  • Margarines high in mono- or poly-unsaturated fats, which are made from safflower, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed, or olive oil, and which are said to be more healthful than butter or other types of margarine.

Many popular table spreads today are blends of margarine and butter — something that was long illegal in the United States and Australia and no doubt other parts of the world too — 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 of butter a year and just over 2 lb of margarine. By the end of the 20th century, an average American ate just under 4 lb of butter and nearly 8 lb 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".

The United States imports 10 billion pounds of margarine a year. Additionally, the United States exports 2 billion pounds of margarine annually.

The Trans fat issue

Conventional margarine contains a much higher proportion of so-called trans fats than does butter. Because research shows a correlation between diets high in trans fats and coronary heart disease, margarine has come to be perceived by many as unhealthy. Others argue that margarine remains healthier than butter, because butter's higher saturated fat content poses a greater hazard than margarine's trans fats. In response to trans fat concerns and government demands for labelling, margarine manufacturers are making and selling new varieties that contain less or no trans fat. In particular, tub margarine is sometimes lower in trans fat than stick margarine, but tub margarine is usually too soft to be suitable for baking.

Which is better for your health?

Although many Americans are told margarine contains less saturated fat than butter, it is not exactly true it is healthier per se. As mentioned above, trans fat is used in the process of solidifying margarine to look like butter. If a margarine does contain high concentrations of trans fats, then it is actually worse than butter. This is because in addition to raising LDL ("bad cholesterol") like saturated fats, it actually lowers HDL ("good cholesterol"). An easy rule of thumb to judge healthiness of oils is simply the fluidity. Saturated fats are usually solid and bad for your health, while liquids are better. Margarine is better if liquid and unsolidified.

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