What Is Margarine, Exactly?

We have the scoop on what’s actually in margarine…and the surprisingly fascinating story of how this butter substitute was invented.

Here’s an interesting piece of food facts trivia: Did you know that we have Napoleon III to thank for margarine? He offered a prize to whomever could invent a cheap butter substitute to feed the French army, and in 1869, French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès did just that and introduced the world’s first margarine. So what is margarine, exactly? Mège-Mouriès’ margarine was made by churning together beef tallow and milk, but when it began being mass-manufactured in the 20th century, vegetable oils became the main ingredients.

It may have been meant for the military, but margarine soon crossed over to the mainstream, becoming a popular grocery item all over the world. Margarine was considerably cheaper than butter, making it a good value for many working families. For people in hot climates who could not refrigerate butter, margarine was able to stay solid at room temperature. Because it didn’t burn easily the way butter does, it also became a popular one-to-one butter substitute for cooking and baking. And when doctors discovered that too much butter could be bad for our health, many people took to margarine as a healthier alternative. While things got a little murky for margarine in the ’90s, today’s options are better than they’ve ever been.

What is margarine made from?

All margarines and butter substitutes on the market have their own special blend of ingredients, but for the most part, margarine is primarily a blend of natural vegetable oils, with palm, palm kernel, and soybean oils being the ones most commonly used. In addition to these oils, margarine almost always contains water and salt; after that, any number of additional ingredients can be added for consistency, color, and taste. (Side note: Though there are environmental concerns about palm oils, margarine is a greener choice than butter. In fact, research has shown that the carbon footprint of butter is more than four times that of margarine.)

For a product to be considered margarine legally, manufacturers must comply with the FDA Code of Federal Regulations, which specifies margarine as “food in plastic form or liquid emulsion, containing not less than 80 percent fat.” But that doesn’t mean that margarine is plastic! In this instance, the word plastic refers to foods that are solid at room temperature.

What’s the difference between margarine and butter?

Butter is a dairy product made from milk or cream; it must be at least 80 percent fat to be sold commercially, and the remaining percentage consists of water and milk proteins. Margarine, on the other hand, is made from oil, water, salt, and a few additional ingredients such as emulsifiers. It’s flavored to taste like butter (did you know there was a time when coloring margarine to match butter was outlawed in some states?), but it usually doesn’t contain any dairy products. By law, it must also be at least 80 percent fat, though manufacturers can get away with less by calling their product a “spread.”

When cold, butter is rock solid, while most margarines are softer and will spread easily. You can leave butter and margarine on your countertop at room temperature for a few days, according to the USDA, but you’ll eventually have a problem with both—butter will spoil, and margarine will separate into its base components. While the margarine will likely still be safe to eat, “it may not have the mouthfeel you’re looking for,” notes the Food Network. Warmer climates will expedite issues for butter and margarine, so keep that in mind when deciding whether to refrigerate or not.

When it comes to cooking, you can substitute margarine for butter (and vice versa), though depending on the recipe, they may produce slightly different results. For example, when sautéing food on the stove top, butter can easily burn in the pan thanks to its milk proteins. Margarine, on the other hand, is made of oil, meaning it has a higher smoke point and won’t burn. In baking, margarine won’t melt as quickly in the oven as butter does. This doesn’t make a huge difference when it comes to cakes, but for cookies, it means less spread, and for pie crusts, it can make a flakier dough.

Is margarine unhealthy?

Here’s where things can get tricky: For most of the 20th century, margarine was touted as a “health food,” when in reality, it wasn’t. At the time, margarine was made from oil that had been hydrogenated with trans fats, which, in the 1990s, scientists discovered are bad for heart health. Margarine went from being a healthy alternative to butter to an unhealthy “bad trans fat” food that should be avoided.

But times have changed once again! Margarine companies began reformulating their recipes to be healthier and free of trans fats, and in 2015, the FDA officially banned trans fats in all processed food made in the United States. Today’s margarine is not the same one we grew up with, and it’s finally making good on its promise to be a healthy alternative to butter.

All margarine recipes are different—there are margarines that add milk products for creaminess, some of which are 100 percent plant-based, and others that add special ingredients, such as omega-rich oils and plant stenols, for cardiovascular health. But at their core, modern margarines are made from plant-based oils that are rich in mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, can help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol when substituted for saturated fat.

If you’re lactose-intolerant, vegan, or have an aversion to dairy products, it’s important to check the label before you buy margarine. If a margarine contains any milk or milk-derived ingredients, the manufacturer is legally required to print “contains milk products” under the list of ingredients.

Now that you know what margarine is, find out what’s actually in white chocolate and where vanilla flavoring comes from.

Sources:

  • Mayo Clinic: “Which spread is better for my heart—butter or margarine?”
  • Mental Floss: “The Surprisingly Interesting History of Margarine”
  • FDA: “Code of Federal Regulations Title 21”
  • Food Network: “Is It Safe to Leave Butter on the Counter?”
  • Conservation Magazine: “Butter Is Toast”

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Allison Robicelli
Allison Robicelli has nearly 20 years of professional experience in the worlds of food, lifestyle, and parenting. She is the author of three cookbooks, one travel/history book, and has written for a variety of national magazines, websites, and newspapers.