Margarine has traditionally been thought of as being the healthier alternative to butter because it is regarded as less fattening and therefore less likely to cause heart disease, but what is margarine? Having bought it religiously for years thinking it was the better option for my children, I suddenly looked at the tub of bright yellow spread and thought “Hang on a minute, here, what am I even eating?”
Inventor of Margarine
The essential component of margarine was discovered in 1813 by French Chemist Eugène Michel Chevreul when he isolated margaric acid from animal fats. Margaric acid was named so because of the Greek word for ‘pearl’, margarites, to describe the pearly deposits of fatty acid that formed margarine.
In the 1860’s, Emperor Louis Napoleon III publicized a competition in which he dared any chemist to come up with a substitute for butter, which could then be used in the armed forces and for poor people because it would be cheaper. Anyone who was successful and met this challenge would be given a prize.
Another French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés rose to the challenge and invented a substance he called oleomargarine. Like many words, in more modern times this was shortened to margarine.
What is Margarine Made of?
Initially, margarine was made from solidified beef fat, butyrin (butyric acid and glycerol – natural components of butter) and artificial color added in to make it look like real butter. The dairy industry of course hated this as it was competition for their business and in fact, by 1877 there were laws in place in America to restrict the sale of margarine because it was perceived a threat to the dairy industry. They also banned the use of artificial colors so that the margarine would be white and look less like butter. Laws were even passed to force manufacturers to put pink dye into margarine so that customers would not want to eat it, but this was overturned by the Supreme Court. In some countries it was not legal to make margarine yellow until the 1960’s.
Today margarine is made from either animal fats or vegetable fats, mixed with salt, skimmed milk and emulsifiers (stabilizers). Traditional margarines are usually hydrogenated, turning them into saturated fats that are thought to be less healthy for you than monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. This is because the process of hardening vegetable oils creates saturated fat. In actual fact, traditional margarine contains more of the bad ‘trans’ fats, responsible for some cases of heart disease, than butter does, and it usually has artificial colors in it to make it look buttery.
Due to the high ‘trans’ fat content, this led margarine manufacturer’s to develop other margarines made of soybean, sunflower oil or olive oil so that margarine consumers could enjoy some of the ‘good’ fats but even these are full of artificial additives, whereas butter is a natural product and its fatty acids are similar to those in our own bodies (although if you eat it, you should go organic otherwise it will contain pesticides and antibiotics that the animals were given).
No Evidence Margarine Reduces Heart Disease
In fact, margarine manufacturer’s claims that it would reduce cholesterol and therefore heart disease have never been proven. A study in the British Medical Journal concluded:
‘Lowering serum cholesterol concentrations does not reduce mortality and is unlikely to prevent coronary heart disease. Claims of the opposite are based on preferential citation of supportive trials.’
Another study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that it was more important to have more ‘good’ fats in your diet rather than having a reduced fat diet.
So, what do I do for my children now? Clearly it is up to each individual consumer to decide whether they will eat margarine or butter. For my family, we have decided not to eat margarine again. We have the occasional bit of butter every now that then for those tricky fillings that won’t stick to bread without it, but for the most part we go without.
Spread Free Sandwich Ideas
Many fillings can be put into sandwiches without the use of either, such as hummus and rocket salad, honey, fruit spread, egg mayonnaise, hummus, grated carrot and olive, mashed banana, pureed avocado and almond…there’s all sorts of options when you put your mind to it. Some types of bread are delicious on their own, like French bread dipped in soup, olive bread and sundried tomato bread.
The artificial, far too yellow butter substitute became a thing of the past in our house.