The French emperor Napoleon III challenged the scientists of his day to invent a cheaper alternative to butter that would still be similar in appearance and taste. In 1869, French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès combined beef tallow, milk, and margaric acid to create a substitute for butter that he called oleomargarine. Margarine’s name derives from the Greek word for pearls, margarite, since margaric acid resembled milky, pearl-like drops.
Margarine was naturally white in color, so manufacturers added yellow dye to make it look more like butter. Although it was a cheaper substitute for butter, margarine didn’t become popular right away. In many areas, margarine’s struggle to compete with butter was the result of the dairy industry’s efforts to restrict competition from the emerging margarine industry.
The dairy industry convinced many governments to impose special taxes on margarine, which made it more expensive. Some groups even persuaded some states to ban the use of artificial dyes in margarine, hoping that its natural white color would be less appetizing than traditional butter.
Margarine’s popularity began to grow during times of war when there were shortages of butter. Over time, special taxes and rules that sought to undermine margarine’s popularity were changed. Today, margarine is a popular product that sits beside butter on the shelves of grocery stores everywhere.
Modern margarine is usually made from one or more animal or vegetable oils that have been hydrogenated. The process of hydrogenation helps plant oils emulsify, which means they convert from a liquid to a fatty, semi-solid state.
Today, butter and margarine are very similar in terms of taste, appearance, price, and even calories. The main difference is what type of fat each contains. Butter tends to contain more saturated fat since it’s made from animal fat.
Margarine, on the other hand, usually contains unsaturated fats, since it’s made from vegetable oils. These unsaturated fats help to reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is what health professionals consider to be “bad” cholesterol.
While margarine may seem like the healthier option when compared to butter, nutritionists warn that you should carefully check nutrition labels before choosing a product. Some margarine contain trans fat, which has been known to increase cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. When choosing a product, look for one with no trans fats and as few saturated fats as possible.