Margarine: A Closer Look

Margarine has its origins in France. In 1866 the French Government launched a competition that called for research into the development of a reasonably priced nutritive fat to be used as an alternative to butter.

In 1869, a French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés discovered the recipe for margarine using a mixture of beef tallow and skim milk. He won the competition prize and was granted a patent for his invention in France and England.

In 1871, Mr. Mège-Mouriés sold his knowledge to the Dutch firm Jurgens, a company that eventually became the giant food corporation known as Unilever. Unilever was created in 1930 by the merger of British soapmaker Lever Brothers and Dutch producer Margarine Uni. The merger was logical for both companies, as palm oil was a major raw material for both products and could be imported more efficiently in larger quantities.

The first margarine factory was built in Germany in 1872 and the first US factory was built between 1874 – 1876.

At first, the margarine was made from beef tallow and milk. But the price of tallow created a need for a cheaper fat source.

In the 1890s, the meatpacking monopoly controlled the price of lard and tallow needed to make candles and soap. Candlemaker William Proctor and his brother-in-law, soap-maker James Gamble, combined their companies and took steps to gain control of the cottonseed oil business from farm to factory, with the aim of forcing tallow, (and the meat packers) out of the candle and soap business.

By 1905, the two men owned several cottonseed mills in Mississippi. In 1909, P&G; acquired the patent for the science of hydrogenation from Joseph Crossfield and Sons, a British company. By forcing the addition of hydrogen atoms to the fatty acid chain, this revolutionary industrial process transformed liquid cottonseed oil into a solid that resembled lard. This hydrogenation process was incorporated into the making of oil-based spreads.

Eventually, soybean oil became the main ingredient. By the mid-1930s, margarine was made with hydrogenated soybean oil, along with some added vitamin A and D. Consumption increased during the Depression years, and further increased significantly during World War II as butter was reserved for the soldiers fighting in Europe.

The Nasty Process of Making Margarine

Today, the production of margarine is an unappetizing process that uses several toxic chemicals. Here’s an overview of the steps involved:

  1. Vegetable oil is made from oilseeds such as soybeans, corn, cottonseed or canola. The seeds are cleaned and crushed and the oil is extracted by applying high temperatures and pressure.
  2. Since heat and light accelerate the rate of the reaction between polyunsaturated oils and oxygen, this extraction process causes the oils to become rancid, producing unpleasant and noxious odors and flavors.
  3. Any oil left in the seed pulp is removed with noxious solvents such as hexane, a known neurotoxin.
  4. The crude oil is then degummed with acid to remove other impurities, and caustic soda is added to remove the degumming acids.
  5. The resulting gray and smelly oil is bleached with Fuller’s earth (the same ingredient used in cat litter) and then filtered.
  6. The rancid smells are removed through a high-temperature steam cleaning deodorization process. This destroys any remaining nutrients and antioxidants.
  7. The refined oil is mixed with a nickel catalyst and subjected to hydrogen gas in a high pressure, high-temperature reactor. The high temperature and pressure in the presence of the nickel catalyst force hydrogen atoms into the oil molecules, creating a partially solid, saturated product. This process is called hydrogenation. It is at this point that dangerous trans fats are created. Basically, the artificially created saturated fat molecules to make their double bonds in the wrong places. These molecular misfits have been linked to inflammation, blood platelet stickiness, insulin resistance, and other health problems.
  8. The resulting gray, smelly grease is filtered to remove the leftover toxic nickel and other suspended materials.
  9. The grease is then mixed with soap-like emulsifiers, then steam cleaned to remove the obnoxious odors.
  10. The mixture is then bleached to remove the gray color, and artificial flavors, synthetic vitamins and natural colors (synthetic coloring is dangerous!) are added to improve the appearance and taste.
  11. The mixture is now extruded into plastic tubs for sale.
  12. Finally, clever advertising and marketing campaigns are implemented to promote the final product as a health food to the unsuspecting public, usually with the full endorsement of many scientists, doctors, nutritionists, and health authorities.

As you can see from the process above, oil-based spreads are NOT health foods and should be avoided. Instead, choose real, clean butter, preferably in raw or cultured form. In the butter vs margarine debate, butter is the clear winner.

Resources for Further Reading

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