Butter versus Margarine from the beginning

... a brief history of margarine (and trans fat)

floraThe term ‘margarine’ is actually quite heterogeneous, i.e. can mean many different things. The production process and recipes for margarine vary and have changed considerably over the years since the original conception in the 19th Century. The term now generally refers to a butter substitute or ‘spread’, which is made by a process of hardening (solidifying) vegetable oils.

Oleomargarine (later shortened to ‘margarine’) was invented and patented in 1869 by a French Chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, as a direct result of a challenge by Emperor Napoleon III of France who offered a prize to anyone who could produce a cheap butter alternative for use by the armed forces and lower classes. The original process combined beef fat and skimmed milk (i.e. with the butter fraction removed) and these humble beginnings have had an interesting journey and evolution to the present. In 1871, Mège sold his invention to the Dutch firm Jurgens, which later became part of Unilever which makes Flora Margarine in the present day.

 In 1871, Henry W. Bradley of New York patented a process of creating margarine that for the first time utilised vegetable oil (mainly cottonseed oil) combined with animal fats. The early 20th century also saw the invention of hydrogenation — a chemical process which turns vegetable oils into solid fats. This coupled with the depression of the 1930s, which led to a shortage of animal fats, created the perfect catalyst for the margarine industry to grow as a cheap alternative to butter. However, unlike butter, margarine around this time had a white colour, which looked unattractive, and so manufacturers started to artificially colour the margarine to a more butter-like yellow.

“From a nutritional standpoint, the consumption of trans fatty acids results in considerable potential harm but no apparent benefit. There is no safe level of trans fat consumption”

The invention of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils also heralded the creation of the first man-made fats to join our diet — trans fatty acids or ‘trans fats’. Although margarines had varying amounts of trans fat, the first commercially available pure trans fat product was marketed by Procter and Gamble as a vegetable shortening for baking — Crisco (composed largely of partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil). Further success came from a marketing technique of giving away free cookbooks in which every recipe called for Crisco. Partially hydrogenated shortening and margarines grew in popularity through World War II instead of rationed butter. Margarine continued to exist as a budget butter replacement, with the added appeal of being spreadable straight out of the fridge, until the 1980s when it would change its image from cheap alternative to health food.

In the 1980s the concept that saturated fats specifically were a major driver for heart disease grew in popularity and became fashionable. Consumer groups campaigned against saturated fats for frying in fast-food restaurants and the food industry exploited this marketing angle. The replacement of saturated fats by unsaturated fat margarine was also supported by international medical society guidelines and charities based on the available evidence of the time. In response fast-food companies switched to partially hydrogenated oils containing trans fats instead of animal fats (such as lard) and other saturated fat oils. An additional appeal for the fast food industry was that trans fat oils do not need to be changed as often as other oils and can be used many time over in the commercial fryers (oils which are reheated repeatedly to high temperatures also develop other adverse toxic elements).

Trans fat products and margarines continued to grow in popularity for the next decade because they were inexpensive and also act as a stable preservative (resistant to rancidity), giving industrially baked processed foods (biscuits, cakes and pastries) a longer shelf life, tempting taste and buttery texture.

10 years later in the early 1990s new medical research starts to reveal that trans fats are seriously bad for health. Although small amounts of trans fats can be found naturally it is industrially produced trans fats which are linked to an increased risk of multiple diseases including cardiovascular disease and cancers. There is nothing nutritionally positive about trans fat—a pure evil ‘food’ (if you can even call it a food). Eating trans fats increases LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides but also amazingly lowers HDL (good cholesterol) and promotes inflammation creating a perfect athrogenic [causing artery furring] environment. Trans fats increase your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, type 2 Diabetes and have been linked with several types of cancer. Consumption of only 5 g per day is associated with a 23% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease!

It takes a further 10 years until government policies regarding trans fats and food production guidelines start to change. Denmark’s virtual ban on the sale of products containing trans fats in 2003 was a worldwide first. Austria, Hungary, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland have now set similar limits that virtually ban trans fats from food products. Eastern Europe still have a greater prevalence of trans fat containing products.

In 2006 as a response of pressure from US Physician groups, New York State in the USA agrees to legislation mandating the banning of trans fats from the city’s restaurants. In 2013 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) in human food. Interestingly trans fat levels of less than 0.5 grams per serving can be listed as 0 grams trans fat on US food labelling. In Canada products with less than 0.2 grams may be labelled as free of trans fat.

In the UK the movement against commercial trans fats started in 2005. Essentially all the supermarkets have removed trans fats from their own products but in terms of the rest of the food industry there is a voluntary onus only to remove trans fats from products rather than any definitive legislation. However industrially produced trans fats are now rare but the key is to look for the term “partially hydrogenated” in processed or fast foods especially when deep fried or from a convenience dough or pastry product.

There is no doubt that the practices throughout the late 20th Century of replacing saturated fats with trans fat products and margarines has resulted in an increase of cardiovascular diseases. In the modern era margarines are no longer produced through hydrogenation in recognition of the adverse health consequences of trans fat. The key principle of emulsifying a water-in-fat suspension which is solid at room temperature remains. Nowadays emulsifiers or other chemical techniques are used to combine water and refined vegetable oils in varying proportions (sunflower, linseed, palm and rapeseed are common) with salt, preservatives, buttermilk, added flavourings and vitamins. All this in itself does not sound so healthy, especially in an era when an overall common sense approach to health is the avoidance of processed foods — the quality of the added oils in an industrial refining process is also uncertain and this is clearly a highly processed product. Therefore intuitively we should have some concerns. History and the trans fat experience has certainly shown us that man-made highly processed foods have adverse effects on health. There is a common-sense element to all this but what about objective contemporary evidence? There has been a lot of recent interest in “Butter vs. Margarine”. Now that we know the background . . . look out for our review of the evidence coming soon.


  • How about ‘spreadable’ butter (butter blended with vegetable oil) since butter straight from the fridge is notoriously difficult?
    No mention of the vegetable oil being ‘hyrogenated’.
    I have a tub of Kerrygold Spreadable in front of me:
    Butter 63%
    Rapeseed Oil 29%
    Salt 1.3%

    peter42, 25th November 2017 at 6:45 pm -
    • Hi! All those components sound fine, after all we like Fussels rapeseed oil. I will ask Dr Khavandi for a definitive answer this week and will post his reply. Best Wishes, Mary.

      Mary, 26th November 2017 at 9:02 am -
      • Here is Ali’s reply;

        ‘Mary has asked me to intervene on this one. Obviously we are not set up to provide personalised health information via CardioKIT and so need to highlight this disclaimer.

        In short:

        Extra Virgin Olive oil (best)

        Cold pressed rapeseed oil – attractive fat profile but ultimately does not have the evidence (watch out for industrially refined rapeseed oil which often appear in mass produced products). We really like great British products like Fussels.

        Butter – absolutely acceptable and likely neutral to your health in sensible amounts (think of the French who know a thing or two about high quality butter and historically have some of the lowest rates of heart disease).

        Margarine – highly processed and we would stay away both from a culinary perspective and health

        Spreadable butter with rapeseed oil would not be as bad as margarine but why not enjoy a high-quality whole butter product (if you want butter) in sensible amounts. We love Yeo Valley if you are looking for a brand . . .

        Hope this goes someway to answering your question’.

        Mary, 17th March 2018 at 9:25 am -
  • Hi Mary, did you ever get a reply to this question?

    Judith, 23rd December 2017 at 4:44 pm -
    • Eventually and all my fault for forgetting to ask. See above. I’m going to try blending Fussels rapeseed oil with butter and see if that makes it more spreadable!

      Mary, 17th March 2018 at 9:27 am -

Leave a Reply

Back to top