Way back in 1869, French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries entered a contest held by Emperor Napoleon III, who offered a prize to anyone who could come up with an satisfactory substitute for butter, for use by the French armed forces. Mege-Mouries won, and patented his butter-replacement on 15 July 1869.
Mege-Mouries called his invention oleomargarine – the name that, after shortening, became the trade name ‘margarine’. (In some places it is still colloquially called ‘oleo’.) He set up a manufacturing operation for his margarine, but it did not prove successful, so he eventually sold his patent in 1871 to Jurgens, a Dutch company that became part of Unilever.
From early in its history, margarine (typically composed of vegetable oils) faced fierce rivalry from the dairy industry, who was concerned about the impact it would have on butter sales. In its basic form, margarine is a pearly white colour, so noting this could be a point of differentiation between margarine and butter, the dairy industry lobbied legislators to restrict the addition of artificial colouring agents in margarine. Long-standing legislative bans on added colour were put in place in the US, Canada and Australasia, with Australia and some US states only starting to allow coloured margarine by the mid 1960s and Canada hanging on to their colour restrictions until as late as 1995 (Ontario) and 2008 (Quebec). Canada clearly did not take kindly to margarine – it was completely banned there until 1948.
Even today, although butter and margarine no longer have to look different, the battle between the two camps rage as fiercely as ever. While there is general consensus that a low-fat polyunsaturated margarine is much less harmful to your heart (it doesn’t contain the cholesterol abundant in butter), the butter lobby is quick to point out that margarine is not a “natural food” and that its artificial colourants have been linked to cancer. From an environmental point of view, the margarine-manufacturing and packaging processes are said to be more intensive and thus less desirable. Then there is the moral and ethical debate, with veganism promoting plant-based margarine over animal-based butter.
Opting for butter or margarine remains a personal decision, based on taste, health, morals and cost. But with health, moral and cost arguments leaning strongly towards the margarine camp, it is no surprise that, worldwide, margarine is definitely the spread of choice, outselling butter by significant margins.