What Is Margarine, Actually?

When I was young, my grandmother would always have a big loaf of bread for the family to whet their appetite before dinner was ready and it was always accompanied by a tub of margarine—I believe it was Country Crock. Maybe because of this, my main association with margarine is that it’s somehow old timey, from a bygone era, and that it sort of tastes like butter but with a more oily taste. In any event, my memories are fuzzy, and my understanding of this food is even fuzzier, so if you, too, have ever wondered “is margarine butter?” or “what is margarine made of?” join me in learning about this buttery-but-not-butter spread. 

Margarine is a substance, technically categorized as a shortening, used for cooking and often as a substitute for butter. It’s an emulsion of fat in water, which basically just means it’s extracted and refined, unlike butter, which is made by churning milk fat. 

Margarine was invented in 1869 by a French chemist with the delightfully French name of Hippolyte Mege-Mouries. In its original form, it was made using beef tallow and called oleomargarine. It did not sell particularly well, but in the 1870s, manufacturers began using a combination of animal fats and lipids such as cottonseed oil, and margarine became more popular. During World War II, butter and animal fats in general were hard to come by, so most margarine manufacturers switched to vegetable oils and fats in the 1940s. 

So, is margarine dairy free? Is margarine vegan? Historically, as we can see, the answer is no, but today’s margarine is much more likely to be made without animal products. But it’s not a hard and fast rule. The ingredients list of my grandmother’s favorite Country Crock contains “Purified Water, Soybean Oil, Palm Kernel And Palm Oil, Salt, Lecithin (Soy), Vinegar, Natural Flavors, Vitamin A Palmitate, Beta Carotene (Color).” Vegan, check. Dairy free, check. However, comedy writers’ favorite brand “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” boasts “Purified Water, Soybean Oil, Palm And Palm Kernel Oil, Salt, Lecithin (Soy), Natural Flavor, Vinegar, Vitamin A Palmitate, Beta Corotene (Color), Contains Milk And Soy.” Milk! So, it’s not dairy free. Fortunately, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” also sells a vegan version—so, just be sure to check the label. 

Margarine’s popularity is due in part to the perception of health benefits. Because it uses vegetable oils, margarine is significantly lower in saturated fat than butter. For that reason, it has been touted as more heart healthy, and there may be some truth to that, but because of its highly processed nature, it’s not currently a particular favorite amongst those trying to be health conscious. This helps explain the notion of margarine as something somewhat old timey. Still, it has an unmistakable taste that some people even prefer to butter. 

Happy spreading! 

About the Author

Matt Crowley

Matt Crowley is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles. He likes maple-flavored snacks, loves every kind of cheese, and is slowly learning to accept mushrooms.

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