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Margarine is an imitation butter spread used for spreading, baking, and cooking. It was originally created from beef tallow and skimmed milk in 1869 in France by Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, as a result of a challenge proposed by Emperor Louis Napoleon III, as a substitute for butter which would later be renamed “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 locales it is colloquially referred to as "oleo", short for oleomargarine.
Margarine, like butter, consists of a water-in-fat emulsion, with tiny droplets of water dispersed uniformly throughout a fat phase which is in a stable crystalline form. Margarine has a minimum fat content of 80%, the same as butter, but unlike butter, reduced-fat varieties of margarine can also be labelled as margarine (in some countries). Colloquially in the US, 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.
Margarine can be used for spreading, baking, and cooking. It is also commonly used as an ingredient in other food products, such as pastries and cookies, for its wide range of functionalities.
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 (margaritēs / márgaron), meaning pearl-oyster or pearl, or margarís), meaning palm-tree, hence the relevance to palmitic acid). Scientists at the time regarded margaric acid, like oleic acid and stearic acid, as one of the three fatty acids which, in combination, formed 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.
Emperor Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory alternative for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes. French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented a substance he called oleomargarine, the name of 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. 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.
The principal raw material in the original formulation of margarine was beef fat. In 1871, Henry W. Bradley of Binghamton, New York patented a process for creating margarine that combined vegetable oils (primarily cottonseed oil) with animal fats. 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. 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. In the US, 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.
While butter that cows produced had a slightly yellow colour, margarine had a white colour, 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 colouring 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 patent number 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 colouring laws were repealed and margarine could for the first time be sold coloured 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. 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.
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". 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
Commonly, the natural oils are hydrogenated by passing hydrogen through the oil in the presence of a nickel catalyst, under controlled conditions. 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. This method is used today for some margarines although the process has been developed and sometimes other metal catalysts are used such as palladium. 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 will still be present in the final margarine in molecules of trans fats, the consumption of which has been shown to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. 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.
Modern margarines can be made from any of a wide variety of animal or vegetable fats, mixed with skim milk, salt, and emulsifiers. 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 will slightly vary. 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.
Three types of margarine are common:
Blending with butter
Butter mixtures now make up a significant portion of the table spread market. The brand "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!" spawned a variety of similarly named spreads that can now be found on supermarket shelves all over the world, with names like "Beautifully Butterfully", "Butterlicious", "Utterly Butterly", and "You'd Butter Believe It". These butter mixtures avoid the restrictions on labelling, with marketing techniques that imply a strong similarity to real butter. Such marketable names present the product to consumers differently from the required product labels that call margarine "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil".
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
Vegetable fats can contain anything from 7% and 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. 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. Regular butterfat contains 52 to 65% saturated fats.
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. During the manufacture of margarine, some of the unsaturated fats may be converted into hydrogenated fats or trans fats in order to give them a higher melting point so that they are solid at room temperatures.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-6 fatty acids
Several large studies have indicated a link between consumption of high amounts of trans fat and coronary heart disease, and possibly some other diseases, prompting a number of government health agencies across the world to recommend that the intake of trans-fats be minimized.
In the US, 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. This led to the production of new margarine varieties that contain less or no trans fat.
Therefore overall intake of cholesterol as food has less effect on blood cholesterol levels than the type of fat eaten. 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.
Plant sterol esters and stanol esters
Margarine has a particular market value to those who observe the Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut. Kashrut 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 that will be 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.
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.
"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."
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."
In 2007, Health Canada released an updated version of the Canada's Food Guide which recommended Canadians choose "soft" margarine spreads that are low in saturated and trans fats and limit the use of traditional "hard" margarines, butter, lard, and shortening in their diets.
"A water-in-oil emulsion derived from vegetable/animal fats, with a fat content of at least 80% 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%.
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.
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 colour, requiring it to be bright yellow or orange in some provinces or colourless in others. By the 1980s, most provinces had lifted the restriction. However, in Ontario it was not legal to sell butter-coloured margarine until 1995. Quebec, the last Canadian province to regulate margarine colouring, repealed its law requiring margarine to be colourless in July 2008.
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 coloured margarine became common, and manufacturers began to supply food-colouring capsules so the consumer could knead the yellow colour into margarine before serving it. Nevertheless, the regulations and taxes had a significant effect: the 1902 restrictions on margarine colour, for example, cut annual US consumption 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 US, 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. Lois Dowdle Cobb (1889–1987) of Atlanta, Georgia, wife of the agricultural publisher Cully Cobb, led the move in the United States to lift the restrictions on margarine. Some unenforced laws remain on the books.
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