Margarine in a tub
Alternative names Oleo, oleomargarine
Type Spread
Place of origin France
Creator Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès
Main ingredients Vegetable oils
Cookbook: Margarine  Media: Margarine

Margarine (i/ˈmɑːrrn/ or /-ɡər-, ˈmɑːrərn, -ˈrn/) is an imitation butter spread used for spreading, baking, and cooking. Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès created it in France, in 1869. He was responding to a challenge by Emperor Napoleon III[1] to create a butter substitute for the armed forces and lower classes. It was later named margarine.

Whereas butter is made from the butterfat of milk, modern margarine is made mainly of refined vegetable oil and water, and may also contain milk. In some places in the United States it is colloquially referred to as "oleo", short for oleomargarine.[2]

Margarine, like butter, consists of a water-in-fat emulsion, with tiny droplets of water dispersed uniformly throughout a fat phase in a stable crystalline form.[3] In some jurisdictions margarine must have a minimum fat content of 80% to be labelled as such, the same as butter.[4] Colloquially in the United States, the term margarine is used to describe "non-dairy spreads" like Country Crock, and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!, with varying amounts of fat content.[5][6]

Margarine can be used for spreading, baking, and cooking. It is also commonly used as an ingredient in other food products, such as pastries, doughnuts and cookies, owing to its versatility.[7]


Margarine originated with the discovery by French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1813 of margaric acid (itself named after the pearly deposits of the fatty acid from Greek μαργαρίτης or μάργαρον (margaritēs / márgaron), meaning pearl-oyster or pearl,[8] or μαργαρίς (margarís), meaning palm-tree, hence the relevance to palmitic acid).[9] Scientists at the time regarded margaric acid, like oleic acid and stearic acid, as one of the three fatty acids that, in combination, form most animal fats. In 1853, the German structural chemist Wilhelm Heinrich Heintz analyzed margaric acid as simply a combination of stearic acid and the previously unknown palmitic acid.[10]

Emperor Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory butter alternative, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes.[11] French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented a substance he called oleomargarine, which became shortened to the trade name margarine. Mège-Mouriès patented the concept in 1869 and expanded his initial manufacturing operation from France but had little commercial success. In 1871, he sold the patent to the Dutch company Jurgens, now part of Unilever.[12] In the same year a German pharmacist, Benedict Klein from Cologne, founded the first margarine factory "Benedict Klein Margarinewerke", producing the brands Overstolz and Botteram.[13]

Margarine advertising, 1893
Newspaper ad for the oleomargarine product, 1919. Product made by the Swift & Company from by-products of the animal processing business.

In John Steele's 1850 California gold miner's journal, he wrote: "I became acquainted with Mr. Dainels, from Baltimore, who... manufactured butter from tallow and lard, and it looked and tasted so much like real butter, that... I could not tell the difference. However, he deceived no one, but sold it for just what it was. He never explained the process of its manufacturer, and whether he was the originator of oleomargarine I do not know." [14]

The principal raw material in the original formulation of margarine was beef fat. In 1871, Henry W. Bradley of Binghamton, New York received U.S. Patent 110,626 for a process of creating margarine that combined vegetable oils (primarily cottonseed oil) with animal fats.[15][16] Shortages in beef fat supply combined with advances by Boyce and Sabatier in the hydrogenation of plant materials soon accelerated the use of Bradley's method, and between 1900 and 1920 commercial oleomargarine was produced from a combination of animal fats and hardened and unhardened vegetable oils.[17] The depression of the 1930s, followed by the rationing of World War II, led to a reduction in supply of animal fat; and, by 1945, "original" margarine almost completely disappeared from the market.[17] In the United States, problems with supply, coupled with changes in legislation, caused manufacturers to switch almost completely to vegetable oils and fats (oleomargarine) by 1950 and the industry was ready for an era of product development.[17]

While butter that cows produced had a slightly yellow color, margarine had a white color, making the margarine look more like lard. Many people found it to look unappetizing. Around the late 1880s the manufacturers decided to dye the margarine yellow, so it would sell more. Dairy firms, especially in Wisconsin, became alarmed and succeeded in getting legislation passed to prohibit the coloring of the stark white product. In response, the margarine companies distributed the margarine together with a packet of yellow dye. The product was placed in a bowl and the dye mixed in with a spoon. This took some time and effort and it was not unusual for the final product to be served as a light and dark yellow, or even white, striped product. During World War II, there was a shortage of butter in the United States and "oleomargarine" became popular. In 1951 the W. E. Dennison Company received U.S. Patent 2,553,513 for a method to place a capsule of yellow dye inside a plastic package of margarine. After purchase, the capsule was broken inside the package and then the package was kneaded to distribute the dye. Around 1955, the artificial coloring laws were repealed and margarine could for the first time be sold colored like butter.

During WWII rationing, only two types of margarine were available in the UK, a premium brand and a cheaper budget brand. With the end of rationing in 1955, the market was opened to the forces of supply and demand, and brand marketing became prevalent.[17] The competition between the major producers was given further impetus with the beginning of commercial television advertising in 1955 and, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, competing companies vied with each other to produce the margarine that tasted most like butter.[17]

In the mid-1960s, the introduction of two lower-fat blends of butter oil and vegetable oils in Scandinavia, called Lätt & Lagom and Bregott, clouded the issue of what should be called "margarine" and began the debate that led to the introduction of the term "spread".[3] In 1978, an 80% fat product called krona, made by churning a blend of dairy cream and vegetable oils, was introduced in Europe and, in 1982, a blend of cream and vegetable oils called clover was introduced in the UK by the Milk Marketing Board.[3] The vegetable oil and cream spread I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! was introduced into the United States in 1981 and in the United Kingdom and Canada in 1991.[18][19][20]

In recent decades, margarine spreads have gone through many developments in efforts to improve their healthfulness. Most brands have phased out the use of hydrogenated oils, and are now also trans fat free. Many brands have launched refrigerator-stable margarine spreads that contain only 1/3 of the fat and calorie content of traditional spreads. Other varieties of spreads include those with added Omega-3 fatty acids, those with low or no salt, those with added plant sterols, claimed to reduce blood cholesterol, and some made from olive oil or certified vegan oils.[21][22]

Manufacturing process

The basic method of making margarine today consists of emulsifying a blend of vegetable oils and fats, which can be modified using fractionation, interesterification, and/or hydrogenation, with skimmed milk, chilling the mixture to solidify it and working it to improve the texture.[8] Vegetable and animal fats are similar compounds with different melting points. Those fats that are liquid at room temperature are generally known as oils. The melting points are related to the presence of carbon-carbon double bonds in the fatty acids components. A higher number of double bonds gives a lower melting point.

Partial hydrogenation of a typical plant oil to a typical component of margarine. Most of the C=C double bonds are removed in this process, which elevates the melting point of the product.

Commonly, the natural oils are hydrogenated by passing hydrogen through the oil in the presence of a nickel catalyst, under controlled conditions.[23] The addition of hydrogen to the unsaturated bonds (alkenic double C=C bonds) results in saturated C-C bonds, effectively increasing the melting point of the oil and thus "hardening" it. This is due to the increase in van der Waals' forces between the saturated molecules compared with the unsaturated molecules. However, as there are possible health benefits in limiting the amount of saturated fats in the human diet, the process is controlled so that only enough of the bonds are hydrogenated to give the required texture. Margarines made in this way are said to contain hydrogenated fat.[24] This method is used today for some margarines although the process has been developed and sometimes other metal catalysts are used such as palladium.[8] If hydrogenation is incomplete (partial hardening), the relatively high temperatures used in the hydrogenation process tend to flip some of the carbon-carbon double bonds into the "trans" form. If these particular bonds aren't hydrogenated during the process, they remain present in the final margarine in molecules of trans fats,[24] the consumption of which has been shown to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.[25] For this reason, partially hardened fats are used less and less in the margarine industry. Some tropical oils, such as palm oil and coconut oil, are naturally semi-solid and do not require hydrogenation.[26][27]

Modern margarines can be made from any of a wide variety of animal or vegetable fats, mixed with skim milk, salt, and emulsifiers.[28] Margarines and vegetable fat spreads found in the market can range from 10 to 90% fat. Depending on its final fat content and its purpose (spreading, cooking or baking), the level of water and the vegetable oils used vary slightly. The oil is pressed from seeds and refined. It is then blended with solid fat. If no solid fats are added to the vegetable oils, the latter undergo a full or partial hydrogenation process to solidify them. The resulting blend is mixed with water, citric acid, carotenoids, vitamins and milk powder. Emulsifiers such as lecithin help disperse the water phase evenly throughout the oil, and salt and preservatives are also commonly added. This oil-and-water emulsion is then heated, blended, and cooled. The softer tub margarines are made with less hydrogenated, more liquid, oils than block margarines.[29]

Three types of margarine are common:


Discussions concerning the nutritional value of margarines and spreads revolve around two aspects—the total amount of fat, and the types of fat (saturated fat, trans fat). Usually, a comparison between margarine and butter is included in this context as well.

Amount of fat

[30] The roles of butter and traditional margarine (80% fat) are similar with respect to their energy content, but low-fat margarines and spreads are also widely available.

Saturated fat

Main article: Saturated fats

Saturated fatty acids have not been conclusively linked to elevated blood cholesterol levels. Replacing saturated and trans unsaturated fats with unhydrogenated monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats is more effective in preventing coronary heart disease in women than reducing overall fat intake.[31][32][33][34] See saturated fat and cardiovascular disease controversy.

Vegetable fats can contain anything from 7% to 86% saturated fatty acids. Liquid oils (canola oil, sunflower oil) tend to be on the low end, while tropical oils (coconut oil, palm kernel oil) and fully hardened (hydrogenated) oils are at the high end of the scale.[35] A margarine blend is a mixture of both types of components. Generally, firmer margarines contain more saturated fat.

Typical soft tub margarine contains 10% to 20% of saturated fat.[36] Regular butterfat contains 52 to 65% saturated fats.[37] The American Institute of Medicine and the European Food Safety Authority recommend saturated fat intake to be as low as possible.[38]

Unsaturated fat

Main article: Unsaturated fat

Consumption of unsaturated fatty acids has been found to decrease LDL cholesterol levels and increase HDL cholesterol levels in the blood, thus reducing the risk of contracting cardiovascular diseases.[32][33][34]

There are two types of unsaturated oils: mono- and poly-unsaturated fats both of which are recognized as beneficial to health in contrast to saturated fats. Some widely grown vegetable oils, such as rapeseed (and its variant canola), sunflower, safflower, and olive oils contain high amounts of unsaturated fats.[35] During the manufacture of margarine, makers may convert some unsaturated fat into hydrogenated fats or trans fats to give them a higher melting point so they stay solid at room temperatures.

Trans fat

Main article: Trans fat

Unlike essential fatty acids, trans fatty acids are not essential and provide no known benefit to human health besides providing calories. There is a positive linear trend between trans fatty acid intake and LDL cholesterol concentration, and therefore increased risk of coronary heart disease,[25][41] by raising levels of LDL cholesterol and lowering levels of HDL cholesterol.[42]

Several large studies have indicated a link between consumption of high amounts of trans fat and coronary heart disease, and possibly some other diseases,[31][43][44][45] prompting a number of government health agencies across the world to recommend that the intake of trans-fats be minimized.

In the United States, partial hydrogenation has been common as a result of preference for domestically produced oils. However, since the mid-1990s, many countries around the world have started to move away from using partially hydrogenated oils.[46] This led to the production of new margarine varieties that contain less or no trans fat.[47]

The United States Food and Drug Administration ordered in June 2015 that almost no trans fat could be added to food in America after a three-year grace period. Steven Nissen, the chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic said "in many ways, trans fat is a real tragic story for the American diet, In the 1950s and '60s, we mistakenly told Americans that butter and eggs were bad for them and pushed people to margarine, which is basically trans fat."[48]


Main article: Cholesterol

High levels of cholesterol, particularly of the LDL kind, are associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis and atheroma formation. The narrowing of important blood vessels can cause reduced blood flow to the brain, heart, kidneys and other parts of the body. Cholesterol, though needed metabolically, is not essential in the diet, because the body's production increases as needed when dietary intake falls. The human body makes cholesterol in the liver, adapting the production according to its food intake, producing about 1 g of cholesterol each day or 80% of the needed total body cholesterol. The remaining 20% comes directly from food intake (In those who eat animal products).

Therefore, overall intake of cholesterol as food has less effect on blood cholesterol levels than the type of fat eaten.[49] However, some individuals are more responsive to dietary cholesterol than others. The US Food and Drug Administration states that healthy people should not consume more than 300 mg of cholesterol each day.

Most margarines are vegetable-based and thus contain no cholesterol, while 100 grams of butter contains 178 mg of cholesterol.[36]

Plant sterol esters and stanol esters

Plant sterol esters or plant stanol esters have been added to some margarines and spreads because of their cholesterol lowering effect. Several studies have indicated that consumption of about 2 grams per day provides a reduction in LDL cholesterol of about 10%.[50][51]

Market acceptance

Margarine, particularly polyunsaturated margarine, has become a major part of the Western diet and had overtaken butter in popularity in the mid-20th century.[29] In the United States, for example, in 1930, the average person ate over 18 lb (8.2 kg) of butter a year and just over 2 lb (0.91 kg) of margarine. By the end of the 20th century, an average American ate around 5 lb (2.3 kg) of butter and nearly 8 lb (3.6 kg) of margarine.[52]

Margarine has a particular market value to those who observe the Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut, which forbids the mixing of meat and dairy products; hence there are strictly Kosher non-dairy margarines available. These are often used by the Kosher consumer to adapt recipes that use meat and butter or in baked goods served with meat meals. The 2008 Passover margarine shortage in America caused much consternation within the Kosher-observant community.

Regular margarine contains trace amounts of animal products such as whey or dairy casein extracts. However, margarine that strictly doesn't contain animal products also exists. Such margarines provide a vegan substitute for butter.[53]

National standards


Margarine is common in Australian supermarkets. Sales of the product have decreased in recent years due to consumers "reducing their use of spreads in their daily diet".[54] Butter-colored margarine was sold from its introduction in Australia, but dairy and associated industries lobbied governments strongly in a (vain) attempt to have them change its color, or banned altogether.[55]

Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 2.4.2 – Edible Oil Spreads requires that edible oil spreads and table margarine must contain no less than 55 μg/kg of vitamin D.[56]


Canadian standard B.09.016 states that margarine shall be:

"An emulsion of fat, or water in fat, oil, or fat and oil that are not derived from milk and shall contain not less than 80% fat and not less than 3300 IU of vitamin A and 530 IU of vitamin D."[57]

Calorie reduced margarine is specified in standard B.09.017 as:

"Containing not less than 40% fat and having 50% of the calories normally present in margarine."[57]

In 2007, Health Canada released an updated version of the Canada's Food Guide that recommended Canadians choose "soft" margarine spreads that are low in saturated and trans fats and limit traditional "hard" margarines, butter, lard, and shortening in their diets.[58]

European Union

Under European Union directives,[59] margarine is defined as:

"A water-in-oil emulsion derived from vegetable/animal fats, with a fat content of at least 10% but less than 90%, that remain solid at a temperature of 20°C and are suitable as spread."

Margarines may not have a milk fat content of more than 3%. For blends and blended spreads, the milk fat may be between 10% and 80%.[60]

Spread that contains 60 to 62% of fat may be called "three-quarter-fat margarine" or "reduced-fat margarine". Spread that contains 39 to 41% of fat may be called "half-fat margarine", "low-fat margarine", or "light margarine". Spreads with any other percentage of fat are called "fat spread" or "light spread".

Many member states currently require the mandatory addition of vitamins A and D to margarine and fat spreads for reasons of public health. Voluntary fortification of margarine with vitamins had been practiced by manufacturers since 1925, but in 1940 with the advent of the war, certain governments took action to safeguard the nutritional status of their nations by making the addition of vitamin A and D compulsory. This mandatory fortification was justified in the view that margarine was being used to replace butter in the diet.[61]

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, no brands of spread on sale contain partially hydrogenated oils. Fortification with vitamins A and D is no longer mandatory for margarine,[62] this brings it in line with other spreads where it is only a voluntary requirement.[63]

Since margarine intrinsically appears white or almost white, by preventing the addition of artificial coloring agents, legislators found they could protect the dairy industries by discouraging the consumption of margarine based on visual appeal. If margarine were colored the same as butter, consumers would see it as being virtually the same thing as butter, and as a natural product, even though it is not. Bans on adding color became commonplace in the United States, Canada, and Denmark and, in some cases, those bans endured for almost 100 years. The rivalry between the dairy industry and the oleomargarine industry persists even today.[64]


In Canada, margarine was prohibited from 1886 to 1948, though this ban was temporarily lifted from 1917 until 1923 due to dairy shortages.[65] Nevertheless, bootleg margarine was produced in the neighboring Dominion of Newfoundland from whale, seal, and fish oil by the Newfoundland Butter Company and was smuggled to Canada where it was widely sold for half the price of butter. The Supreme Court of Canada lifted the margarine ban in 1948 in the Margarine Reference. That year, Newfoundland negotiated its entry into the Canadian Confederation - one of its three non-negotiable conditions for union with Canada was a constitutional protection for the new province's right to manufacture margarine.[66]

In 1950, as a result of a court ruling giving provinces the right to regulate the product, rules were implemented in much of Canada regarding margarine's color, requiring that it be bright yellow or orange in some provinces or colorless in others. By the 1980s, most provinces had lifted the restriction. However, in Ontario it was not legal to sell butter-colored margarine until 1995.[65] Quebec, the last Canadian province to regulate margarine coloring, repealed its law requiring margarine to be colorless in July 2008.[67]

United States

In 1877, New York became the first U.S. state to attempt legal restriction of the sale of oleomargarine through compulsory labeling. The law, "to prevent deception in sales of butter," required retailers to provide customers with a slip of paper that identified the "imitation" product as margarine. This law proved ineffective, as it would have required an army of inspectors and chemists to enforce it. By the mid-1880s, the U.S. federal government had introduced a tax of two cents per pound, and manufacturers needed an expensive license to make or sell the product. The simple expedient of requiring oleo manufacturers to color their product distinctively was, however, left out of early federal legislation. But individual states began to require the clear labeling of margarine. The color bans, drafted by the butter lobby, began in the dairy states of New York and New Jersey. In several states, legislatures enacted laws to require margarine manufacturers to add pink colorings to make the product look unpalatable, despite the objections of the oleo manufacturers that butter dairies themselves added annatto to their product to imitate the yellow of mid-summer butter.[68]

1948 advertisement demonstrating how to color margarine in the package

By the start of the 20th century, eight out of ten Americans could not buy yellow margarine, and those who could had to pay a hefty tax on it. Bootleg colored margarine became common, and manufacturers began to supply food-coloring capsules so the consumer could knead the yellow color into margarine before serving it. Nevertheless, the regulations and taxes had a significant effect: the 1902 restrictions on margarine color, for example, cut annual consumption in the United States from 120,000,000 to 48,000,000 pounds (54,000 to 22,000 t).

With the coming of World War I, margarine consumption increased enormously, even in countries away from the front, such as 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 attacks meant little arrived.

The long-running rent-seeking battle between the margarine and dairy lobbies 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 margarine lobby gained power and, little by little, the main margarine restrictions were lifted, the most recent states to do so being Minnesota in 1963 and Wisconsin in 1967.[69][70] Lois Dowdle Cobb (1889–1987) of Atlanta, wife of the agricultural publisher Cully Cobb, led the move in the United States to lift the restrictions on margarine.[71] Some unenforced laws remain on the books.[72][73]

See also

Major oils


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