The History of Margarine (And Why Butter Is Better)

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The history of margarine (and why butter is better!) |

Did you know that the sale of margarine was illegal in seven states in the 19th century and that three states required that it be dyed a bright pink? And did you know that federal laws were created about the manufacture and sale of margarine and that people actually went to jail for violating those regulations?

Me neither! I had never realized that margarine’s history was so controversial until I read about some of the history of how margarine came into being. Looking at the typical grocery store shelves today, though, you’d never think that margarine was ever in disfavor. Margarine is widely accepted now and even praised as a health food, but it wasn’t always that way! 

A Brief History of Margarine

Margarine (aka oleomargarine) was first created in 1869 by a French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès. It was originally made from beef fat and was intended to be a cheaper and less perishable option to regular butter. Over time, vegetable oils such as cottonseed and soybean oils replaced the animal fats, and by World War I margarine was almost exclusively made from these vegetable oils.

Some people worried that the new-fangled margarine was an unwholesome, adulterated food while others loved its lower price and longer shelf-life. Margarine became even more popular in the 1930s and 1940s during the Depression and World War II because of its cheaper price and a scarcity of butter, and it’s popularity really took off in the second half of the 20th century when it became the trend to shun traditional saturated fats (such as butter and lard) and to use vegetable oil-based products instead.

For more information on the history of margarine, this 19th century pamphlet gives a detailed account of the process used in the manufacture of margarine in the 1880s. (It’s very pro-margarine, though, so keep that in mind!)

The War on Margarine

The creation of margarine led to a war between the dairy industry and the margarine producers. The dairy industry naturally resented the competition of the artificial butter substitute and did everything in its power to convince legislators to ban the production of margarine

The states of New York, Michigan, Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin all created laws to ban the sale of margarine. Other states allowed the sale of margarine but prohibited the sale of yellow margarine, accepting the artificial spread only its its whitish-grey uncolored state. The states of New Hampshire, Vermont, and South Dakota even created laws that required the margarine to be dyed pink to make it visually obvious that it was an artificial substitute for butter!

In 1886, Congress passed the federal Margarine Act, which included requirements for annual fees for manufacturing licenses and taxes of two cents per pound on the margarine itself among the other detailed regulations about packaging and labeling, etc. (For more information about the legal specifications of the Margarine Act you can read the text of the Act in this document and you can see photographs of some of the men who went to jail for violating the Margarine Act here.)

Because several states prohibited the sale of yellow margarine, margarine was often sold in its un-colored form with packets or beads of yellow dye that the consumer could mix into the product themselves as a way to get around the unappetizing color of the un-dyed margarine while still abiding by the regulations.

In 1950, after three quarters of a century of strife between the dairy industry and the margarine producers, Congress finally removed the tax regulations on margarine. Interestingly enough, this was the same decade that Ancel Keys published studies about the lipid hypothesis (which have now been disproven) and that the American Heart Association began warning everybody about the dangers of saturated fat and its link to heart disease. Margarine, of course, was the perfect substitute for those who were suddenly trying to avoid saturated fats.

Why Butter Is Better

Unless you are aware of the history behind margarine, you would never know that it was ever anything other than the “healthier” alternative to butter. Whenever you see a TV commercial, it’s usually for a low-fat or lite “buttery spread” not for real, actual butter, and in many grocery store shelves, margarine products take up as much or more shelf space than real butter does.

From the 1870s to the 1950s, there was an on-going war over margarine, but hardly anyone seems to be concerned about fighting that war anymore. Margarine is considered by most to be a perfectly acceptable food that is healthier than butter while butter is often vilified as an artery-clogging food that should be avoided.

When you compare the two, though, and when you look at what’s really in them, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would prefer margarine to butter. Margarine is an artificial product that didn’t even exist until just 150 years ago (which really isn’t that long when you compare it to the thousands of years that butter has been around for.) Even the margarines that claim to be “made from natural ingredients” aren’t really natural at all once they have been so heavily processed and heated at high temperatures that the oils have oxidized (which will actually contribute to inflammation in the body, rather than being “heart healthy.”)

Butter, on the other hand, is a traditional food that our ancestors have been eating for generations. Butter is a simple, natural food that doesn’t require any heavy processing at all. You could even make it in your own kitchen if you wanted. And, unlike margarine which has only oxidized oils and other ingredients that you probably can’t even pronounce, real butter from grass-fed cows has enough nutrients that it could be called a superfood. (And some ancient cultures actually revered butter as a sacred, life-giving food.)

Butter from healthy, grass-fed cows raised on pasture is an excellent source of these nutrients:

  • Conjugated lineolic acid (CLA) – an anti-inflammatory fatty acid that is found in the highest concentration in butter from grass-fed cows
  • Vitamin A  (in the more easily absorbable retinol form)
  • Trace minerals, including the antioxident Selenium
  • Iodine
  • Vitamin K2 (the “Activator X” that Weston Price found in his travels around the world to be a key nutrient in the diets of the healthiest populations with the least amount of tooth decay)

For more information about the health benefits of real butter, check out these articles:

Butter has centuries of tradition behind it, it’s full of important nutrients, and it tastes so much better than any artificial substitute. Isn’t it about time that we continue the 19th century fight against margarine and spread the word in support of traditional, old-fashioned butter? Let’s have a butter revival so we can start seeing more real butter on our grocery store shelves!


The history of margarine (And why butter is better!) |


A Brief History of the Mege Discovery (19th Century Pro-Margarine Pamphlet)

This post is linked to: Sunday School at Butter Believer, Natural Living Monday at Natural Living Mamma, Clever Chicks Blog Hop at The Chicken Chick, Scratch Cookin’ Tuesday at Granny’s Vital Vittles, Family Table Tuesday at The Polivka Family.

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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.

37 thoughts on “The History of Margarine (And Why Butter Is Better)”

  1. This is a very interesting post! I didn’t have any idea about the history. I personally only use real butter (organic when possible), but when shopping, I noticed that the butter/margarine isle is predominantly filled with margarine, with far fewer choices for butter.

    “sold in its un-colored form with packets or beads of yellow dye that the consumer could mix into the product themselves”

    ^That alone should be reason enough to stay far away from it!

    Thanks for sharing on Natural Living Monday!

  2. Butter is what my family uses, but cows are no longer grass fed. They are corn fed. Just wanted to share. That why we have e-coli. Cows can’t properly digest the corn and need grass.

    • I dont know what your cows eat but i just wanted to share that our do not eat corn… Ours eat grass all summer and in winter are fed green feed bails.. Also it is my understanding that e-coli is from meat being inproperly handled or undercooked.

    • Actually just wanted to quickly point out that as a dairy farmer and as many farms in the lower mainland of B.C, our cows are fed a mixture of ingredients which include :grass, corn, alphaphia hey(optional), and various grains, milled canola seed, barley, soybean meal. Most cows are very picky and don’t like big changes in there diet.
      If they don’t like a cirtain mixture they just won’t eat it..
      Oh! And I herd of a few other little notes about margin might be kinda interesting.
      -it was at one point used to fatten turkeys but it ended up killing most of them.
      -margarine is 1 ingredient away from plastic
      -one of if not the only food source that even bugs will stay away from

      • Thanks, Simon! Very interesting. I’ve seen a picture floating around Pinterest with a clump of butter and a clump of margarine on a plate, and a whole bunch of ants were hovering around the butter, but none of them were going near the margarine!

      • One ingredient away from plastic would actually INCLUDE poultry byproducts including fat and cartilage. I used to work at a local chicken processing plant that sells the rejected meat and other byproducts to a meat rendering company. I asked them what they actually use the rendered meat products for and the rendering company staff told me that over 95% of what they obtain from meat processing plants, after rendering, ends up getting sold to companies that use the rendered animal components in the manufacturing of PLASTICS which are then used to make many, if not most of the plastic parts found in most vehicles and cosmetic bottles.

  3. This was an interesting article in terms of learning some history, but I have to point out that saying butter is good because it comes from healthy grass fed cows is an argument based on the naturalistic fallacy. That’s not to say your implication that it’s healthier than margarine is neccessarily false, just that that conclusion does not follow from your argument. It’s good to be aware of this sort of thing when you’re writing.

    Aside from that, saturated animal fat is not good for you no matter what animal it comes from, whether it’s meat or milk, and regardless of what that animal ate. Them’s the facts. There’s actually an argument to be made for margarine on an environmental footprint basis, as well as health: production of margarine takes up less land, produces less greenhouse gas emissions and creates less waste products. An ethical vegan might argue that it’s also better from the perspective of the animal born and raised in captivity for the sole purpose of providing humans something we can get elsewhere.

    As for me, I much prefer having a nice soft non-hydrogenated (i.e. no trans fat) margarine made from olive, canola, or sunflower oil (same stuff I cook with) on my sandwiches, baked potatoes, corn cobs, and crumpets.
    However, I have never heard or read anything about margarine being made from “rancid” oils. If true, that is something that would make me reconsider what I buy, so I would be very interested and appreciative if you could share your references for that.


    • Oh, my, seeing the words “naturalistic fallacy” just brought me back to my college English class! I’m sure I’ve committed other “fallicies” in my blog posts over the years, but since my focus for this blog is on health and old-fashioned living rather than on English, I’m not too worried (unless any of my old English professors ever read this!)

      I know many people today believe that unsaturated fat is unhealthy, but I choose to trust tradition rather than modern science. Traditional saturated fats are very stable fats with a higher smoke point that hold up well to the heat of cooking. Saturated fats like butter, lard, tallow, etc. are also minimally processed (assuming they come from good-quality sources), and it’s possible to produce all of those fats in your own kitchen if you wanted to. These natural fats are the same ones that were used by our grandmothers and great grandmothers for centuries.

      Modern oils, like cottonseed oil and canola oil, have to be very heavily processed (olive oil is the exception to this when it’s a good quality olive oil), and many of these new oils didn’t even exist until the early 20th century. The polyunsaturated fats are much less stable than the saturated fats, so unless they are of a very good quality cold-processed and unheated, they have likely already begun to oxidize and turn rancid.

      • That was a cheeky response to a thoughtful comment. Being anti-science is a bit odd when you are using modern scientifically based concepts such as saturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Not everything old was healthy just as not everything modern is bad for you. In other words you are making false assumptions by equating heritage with good and modern with bad. It makes no logical sense, thus the word fallacy is completely appropriate.

        • Hi Sharon,
          My response was never intended to belittle a thoughtful comment. The reference to fallacies and logical conclusions to arguments simply brought back memories of some of my college classes (which were much more vivid four years ago when I wrote that response!) I have never claimed to be anti-science, and I agree that not everything old is healthy and vice versa. It is my opinion, however, that I feel that a saturated fat such as butter is healthier than a heavily processed polyunsaturated fat such as margarine (which can only be made using modern equipment and can’t be produced in your own kitchen at home.) Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and it is my personal opinion that butter is a healthier choice than margarine.

  4. My mom has memories of her mother mixing the yellow dye into the margarine when she was a kid. It’s funny too, because her dad was very health conscious and had the family eating brown rice and wheat bread and hardly any sweets, yet they still bought margarine!

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  8. Very good article, interesting read. For anyone interested on this topic American author Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise, goes even further to explain the irrationality of eating vegetable oil fats, including margarine…the key to eating animal fats is that these animals should be pastured and not “factory” farmed. Thanks for this article, keep up the good work!

  9. margarine in a bag. I remember it came in plastic type bag and it had a red ball in it. You would break the ball then work it until it wall all mixed. Then squeeze into a bowl and put it in the ICE BOX Yes I said ICE BOX until firm.

    Feel free to email me. [email protected]

    • Yes, I remember reading about that, and that’s so interesting! It’s hard to imagine having to put coloring into your “butter” before using it, but I know a lot of people did back before it came with coloring already added in. And I’ve always thought it would be kind of fun to have an old-fashioned ice box. Maybe not quite as practical as a modern refrigerator, but fun 🙂

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  11. anyway it is all about the Mega-Food Company!!! How long did the Tabacco Industry say smoking is not unhealthy!
    Good article but lacks the important fact that our main metabolistic organ the liver would argue for butter!!!

  12. Where do you people get this stuff? E-coli from feeding corn? The corn is digested in the same manner as the grass. Cows are ruminants and break down plant matter via bacteria in the rumen, one of four chambers in their stomachs. The corn is high in starch which contributes to the marbling of the meat and the fat layer or “finish” of the carcass, that layer that the butcher trims off to suit the customer. High milk production in dairy cows requires immense amounts of energy which requires supplementing the grass with, you guessed it, corn, or some other suitable starch,unless you want to pay an inordinate amount of money for a gallon of milk, or take on the task of daily care of a milk cow. The “saturated fats” myth is just that. there is plenty of evidence to rebut the so called unbiased studies of the American Heart Association, who by the way, say that cereal grains, (ie the corn that is so bad for cows), is better for humans. History has proven that with the introduction of cereal grains into the human diet health complications arise. In the end it’s a crap shoot, but I’ll take natural over synthetic any day and most importantly, BUTTER TASTES BETTER!

  13. I would more than any thing love to be able to eat butter. However those people that are allergic to dairy in or lactose intolerant cannot eat it so margarine it is unfortunately

    • Have you ever tried ghee? It’s a clarified butter that is just basically a pure butter oil with the milk solids removed, so many people who are lactose intolerant are able to tolerate ghee. I’m not sure if it would be ok for someone with a true allergy to dairy, but if you just have a sensitivity or an inability to digest the proteins in dairy, then ghee might be a good substitute for butter. (It tastes like regular butter but with a slight caramelized flavor – almost more like a browned butter taste.) You might be able to ask your doctor if ghee would be a safe alternative for you.

  14. Actually, unsaturated fats go through hydrogenation, not oxygenation, in the process of margarine production (Wikipedia). For more reliable information , please, refer to National Institute of Health sources.

  15. Butter for me, Franky I don’t care about the reasons, lets be honest, does anyone want to eat some over manipulated oil versus something naturally made, yes naturally made…all it takes is cream and a churn and you have butter, while we are at it look at the ingredients of the tubs of cool whip, not cream at all, go for the cans or make your own with a carton of heavy cream!

  16. Thank you all for this information. I found it quite interesting. My family and I prefer butter most of the time in moderation, but sometimes my finances call formargarine. I do get the so called healthy margarine.

    • Sometimes finances can’t be helped, and it’s completely understandable to get margarine sometimes when needed. And even though margarine isn’t the same as butter, I do think that in most cases the margarine of today tends to be healthier than the margarine of 10 or 20 years ago.

  17. I don’t buy the “butter is better for you” argument. And butter certainly isn’t better for everyone–especially someone like me who has had an anaphylactic milk allergy since I was an infant. Unfortunately, 99.9% of all margarine contains butter, and my options are very limited. I currently use Smart Balance.

    • Yes, I agree that butter isn’t for everyone and that certainly anyone with any type of dairy allergy would need to avoid butter. Butter is my personal preference, but I realize that it may not be the best option for everyone. That’s unfortunate that you have such limited options since so many of them contain butter, but it’s good that you found something that you’re able to use.

  18. I used to drink my 2 or 3 cups of coffee each morning with nothing added until I learned to put about 3/4 tsp of butter in each cup. I never liked milk in coffee and certainly not those flavored creamers. Butter doesn’t substantially changed the taste of the coffee, so I’m happy.

    • I’m not a regular coffee drinker, but when I do have it occasionally I usually put butter in, and I really like it that way too!


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