February 1, 2007
When living in Switzerland I read the story of the creation and creator of oleomargarine and it has stayed with me all this time. I had no way of knowing that it was not yet over, but I'm sure there will be more chapters to come now that we are warned about the evil empire of Trans-Fats.
In France in the 19th Century, the government sought a substitute for butter, which was thought to be over-used in French kitchens. A competition was held for the best and most palatable product to replace the original, and this was won by chemist Hippolyte Mègé-Mouriés. A part of his story is related on the Internet in this entry from the Library of Congress:
Sample text for On food and cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen / Harold McGee.
Oleomargarine was developed in 1869 by a pharmacist and chemist, Hippolyte Mègé-Mouriés, after Napoleon III offered a prize for the formulation of a synthetic edible fat. Western Europe was running low on fats and oils; petroleum hydrocarbons were as yet unexploited, and the growing industrial need for lubricants and the popular demand for soaps (caused by a rising standard of living and interest in hygiene) were cutting into vegetable sources.
Mègé-Mouriés was not the first to give suet a buttery texture, but he was the first to make it palatable by flavoring it with a small amount of milk. It was not until 1905, after French and German chemists had developed the process of hydrogenation for hardening normally liquid vegetable oils, that these oils could be made into a butter substitute.
Margarine caught on quickly in both Europe and the United States, where patents began pouring out in 1871, and large-scale production was under way by 1880. At the turn of the century, Mark Twain overheard a conversation between two businessmen aboard the Cincinnati riverboat, and recorded it in Life on the Mississippi.
Why, we are turning out oleomargarine now, by the thousands of tons. And we can sell it so dirt-cheap that the whole country has got to take it -- can't get around it, you see. Butter don't stand any show -- there ain't any chance for competition.
Little did this enthusiast suspect what resistance margarine would meet from the dairy industry and from government. First it was defined as a "harmful drug" and its sale restricted. Then it was heavily taxed, stores had to be licensed to sell it, and, like alcohol and tobacco, it was bootlegged. The government refused to purchase it for use in the armed forces. And, in an attempt to hold it to its true colors, some states did not allow margarine to be dyed yellow (animal fats and vegetable oils are much paler than butter); the dye was sold separately and mixed in by the consumer. Two world wars, which brought butter rationing, probably did the most to establish margarine's respectability. But it was not until 1950 that the federal taxes on margarine were abolished, and not until 1967 that yellow margarine could be sold in Wisconsin. Today, we consume nearly three times as much margarine as we do butter. Both price and the current concern about cardiovascular disease are responsible for this differential. Margarine, once far cheaper than butter, is still marginally so, and contains none of the cholesterol and less of the saturated fats that have been implicated in heart disease. (A fat's hardness at a given temperature is an index of its saturation; the proportion of saturated fats in liquid oil, tub margarine, stick margarine, and butter increases in that order.)
Like its model, margarine is about 80% fat, 20% water and solids. It is flavored, colored, and fortified with vitamin A and sometimes D to match butter's nutritional contribution. A single oil or a blend may be used. During World War I, coconut oil was favored; in the thirties, it was cottonseed, and in the fifties, soy. Today, soy and corn oils predominate. The raw oil is pressed from the seeds, purified, hydrogenated, and then fortified and colored, either with a synthetic carotene or with annatto, a pigment extracted from a tropical seed. The water phase is usually reconstituted or skim milk that is cultured with lactic bacteria to produce a stronger flavor, although pure diacetyl, the compound most responsible for the flavor of butter, is also used. Emulsifiers such as lecithin help disperse the water phase evenly throughout the oil, and salt and preservatives are also commonly added. The mixture of oil and water is then heated, blended, and cooled. The softer tub margarines are made with less hydrogenated, more liquid oils than go into stick margarines.
That's the end of the quoted part from the Internet. The most distressful part of the story to me was that as soon as his product was accepted as the winner, the poor chemist who invented it was considered a disgrace to his country. Margarine was rejected, nay, reviled by the cooking establishment, and Mègé-Mouriés was all but a pariah in his own country.
It is said that his last words were, "There will never be a substitute for butter."