Butter v. Margarine Myths: Margarine Was Invented to Feed Turkeys, Killed Them, & More

Posted by Eric Troy on 04 Mar 2013 19:08

Since around 2003, a compilation of "facts" about margarine has been circulating on the internet, probably starting from one or a number of email chains. Such chain emails are quite common, and they often find their way onto various websites, or social sharing networks such as Facebook, where they are posted as if they are facts from a credible source. Many websites don't even bother to mention the origin of the post, and publish them as if they are a normal article like any other article on the web. The "margarine was invented to fatten turkeys" message is a popular example of just such an instance.

Some of the items in the list contain a grain of truth, but most of them are pure rubbish or great exaggeration.

In an internet search, I found, as expected, that most people have accepted these allegations without question.

The first item on the list was this claim:

Margarine Was Originally Manufactured to Fatten Turkeys, Which it Killed

Here is the exact quote from the compilation:

Margarine was originally manufactured to fatten turkeys. When it killed the turkeys, the people who had put all the money into the research wanted a payback so they put their heads together to figure out what to do with this product to get their money back.

Nope. Not even remotely true. It's actually a bit absurd. Margarine was invented in France by Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès in 1869, during the Franco-Prussian wars. He invented it in response to a competitive challenge from the French government under Napoleon III, who was looking for a cheap and stable substitute for butter, and offered a big prize to anyone who could pull it off.

History of Margarine

Butter was expensive, hard to come by, and didn't hold up for long. The substitute was desired for war troops to carry along as a ready and cheap source of food energy.

There may have been turkeys in France at that time since they had been brought over as early as the 1500's, but the idea that a butter substitute would have been invented to feed them, in a time of war, is quite ludicrous.

Prior to the challenge, Mège-Mouriès had already been investigating this area by studying cows at the imperial farms. He had observed that underfed cows lost weight, but they still produced milk, only at a lesser yield. Yet, this milk still contained fat. He deduced that the fat in the milk must come from the actual body fat reserves of the cows, the tallow1, rather than being derived directly from food. However, beef tallow does not have the same melting properties as milkfat since tallow contains fat fractions that melt at a much higher temperature. So, he figured that the fat must somehow be fractionated through some process before being transported to the mammary glands and dispersed as an emulsion in the milk. The "harder" fractions, those with the higher melting points, he reasoned, must be used by the cow for energy.

Mège thought that the enzymatic action of pepsin had something to do with this fractionation process, so he figured that maybe he could imitate the process. He rendered fresh tallow at body heat (45° C), using artificial gastric juices to separate tissue from fat. Then he crystallized the fat at a lower ambient temperature and extracted it under pressure to obtain a soft semi-fluid fraction, called oleomargarine, and a hard white fat called oleostearine.1,2


Beef Suet, from which Tallow is Rendered
This is something like the raw product Mège
started with for the first margarine.

Image by itpleasesus.com


Beef Suet, from which Tallow is Rendered
This is something like the raw product Mège
started with for the first margarine.

Image by itpleasesus.com

The First Margarine Was White

So sayeth the internet compilation. But, interestingly, this oleomargarine produced by Mège had a pale yellow color, like most butter; and it also had a pleasant taste which was similar to butter.1 What is funny about this is that the margarine fact compilation, right after the first part about it being invented for turkeys, states the following:

It was a white substance with no food appeal so they added the yellow coloring and sold it to people to use in place of butter.

The first margarine was NOT a pure white substance and it DID have food appeal. So that myth is busted as well, as far as the first margarine is concerned. And not all butter is deep yellow, by the way, it depends on when in the season it is produced. Some butter with a deeper yellow color has had annatto coloring added, a carotenoid, to keep the color consistent. People think that yellow means quality in butter, which it doesn't, although the color, when not artificial, does signify a bit richer flavor. Some butter is a very pale color while some is more yellow. Therefore, before I continue with the margarine narrative, let me give you a better lowdown on the color of butter, and some overview of the added color in margarine controversy.

Butter Can Be Pale-Yellow to Deep Yellow

Milkfat commonly has a pale yellow color and this is the color that most U.S consumers associate with quality. However, there is a range of colors possible for butter and the color, as long as it is within this range, does not affect the quality scoring, as far as the USDA is concerned. In other words, a more yellow butter will not be Grade A, just because it is more yellow. What they look for instead are color defects. You don't want butter with colored specks, or streaks, or any kind of uneven color. You also don't want butter that is very pale and bleached looking. But beyond all that, butter can come in a range of pale yellows. The color of the butter is controlled by the availability of feed. The carotenoids in the green feeds produce the yellow color.5

Used to be, in the spring and summer, when cows were grazing on green forage, the butter produced from their milk had a more yellow color. Over the winter, when they were being fed dried grains, the butter was more pale. The nice yellow butter or spring butter had a bit more flavor than the winter butter so a more yellow butter became associated with a better butter. People still expect this today, so it is not unheard of to add a bit of color to make a commercial butter product consistent all year long.6 This is also because people expect absolute consistency in food products, even in products that would normally come in a range of color when left unadulterated.

Adding Color to Margarine

Now, this practice of adding some color to butter to make all butter look like spring butter was being done way back when margarine was still fairly new. The subsequent margarines produced from vegetable oils, as opposed to the tallow that Mège started used, did not have a yellow color, this is true. The makers added color so that their product looked more like butter. The butter industry got very upset over this, and called it fraud. They ignored the fact that they also added color to their product without revealing it to the consumer. However, their argument was that butter cannot really be expected to be uniform in color, but in a time of packaged goods, consumers expect uniformity, as mentioned above. Thus, the edition of yellow color. If butter were left white when it was white, sometimes there would be yellow butter and other times there would be pale or whitish butter, and uniformity would be threatened. Plus, they argued, butter would have no distinction from margarine.

At this time the dairy industry had only just come into its own, so to speak. Preserving dairy products so that they could be produced and distributed on a large scale had been very difficult in the past. Now that the dairy industry was an actual industry, along comes margarine to threaten it, with what it saw as a fraudulent and illegitimate product.

The Early Margarine Laws

Through lobbying, eventually, a bill was passed in 1886 that didn't prohibit margarine, but levied taxes making it very difficult for it to be sold:

  • Manufacturers must pay a $600 licensing fee
  • Wholesalers must pay $480 a year, unless they sold only uncolored margarine, in which case they paid $200
  • Grocers had to pay license fees of $48 and $6 dollars, colored or uncolored, respectively
  • Colored margarine taxed at 10 cents per pound
  • Uncolored margarine taxed at 4 cents per pound

The taxes on colored and uncolored margarine increased over the years.


The public has the perception that margarine industry has enjoyed a free and unmolested rise. This obviously is not true. In fact, even before this national bill was passed, many states had placed various restrictions or bans on margarine, some of which remained in place almost to the 1950's.

  • In Pennsylvania, margarine labels had to be done in Gothic type
  • Utah required licensing and fees from retailers of margarine
  • In Virginia, margarine must be colored pink4


In 1941, a Standard of Identity was defined for margarine, and the tax laws were repealed in 1950. After that, margarine sales increased.3

Margarine is One Molecule Away From Plastic

Okay, where was I? Mège had produced a semi-fluid pale yellow substance he called olemargarine. The word oleum in Latin, meant oil and especially referred to olive oil. He thought his product contained oleic acid and margaric acid or margarine, which derived its name from the Greek word margarite meaning "pearl-like luster."

This oleomargarine wasn't yet like butter. It was too soft at ambient temperature. It had to be plasticized.

What? It had to be turned into plastic? So it's true, margarine is just like plastic! Cool your jets before you go off all half-cocked there, dear reader. The way we use the word plastic is actually a bit, well, imprecise.

I've already discussed the fact that margarine is a shortening and that the property of shortenings that make them useful is their plasticity: What is Shortening? It's Not Exactly What You Think.

Although we usually think of plastic as a product, it is actually a property, better used as an adjective. That is, plastic is plastic because it has the properties of, well, plastic. What does that mean?

First, let's say we are talking about materials. Materials can be said to have different kinds of behavior. For instance, a material can show fluid behavior. That means it might be viscous and able to flow to various extents, depending on conditions. Water is a fluid, but not in all conditions, right? Well, so is air. Yep, weird but true.2 And many other things that we don't normally think of as fluids. One of the attributes of a fluid is that it can flow.

A material can also be said to be plastic, or to possess plasticity. Not only polymerized plastics produced from petroleum oils can possess this property, but many other materials. The easiest way to think of a plastic is as something that you can mold. Two examples of natural plastics are rubber and silk.

So, as you could surmise, clay is plastic. You can mold it under a load and it will keep its new shape. It's not elastic, it's plastic. To some extent, this type of deformation is observed in most materials. You can do it to metal, concrete, or even bone, but the mechanisms that allow this are different in different materials.

You can see that clay could be compared to margarine or butter, to some extent. People even make butter sculptures. But butter and margarine are only solid and moldable at a certain range of temperature, beyond which they melt into a liquid. Other fats might also be solid at similar temperatures, but also be brittle and hard.

To produce something that could substitute for butter, Mège needed to make his oleomargarine more plastic. So he took the oleomargarine and mixed it with varying amounts of milk and water, and stirred it until it formed a thick, stable emulsion. He then churned this mixture until it became more solid and started to resemble butter. He thought this was composed mostly of margaric acids, so he called it margarine. It was found later that it was a mixture of palmitic and stearic acids, but the name margarine stuck.1,2,3

Margarine, therefore, is plastic. This does not mean it is like a Tupperware container. Yet, the internet compilation makes the following "highly interesting" statement:

Margarine is but ONE MOLECULE away from being PLASTIC… and shares 27 ingredients with PAINT.

First, a molecule is the smallest portion of a material that still retains the properties of that material.3 So, a molecule of margarine IS margarine. You might put a bunch of molecules together to make something, but the resulting thing is itself a molecule. This is notwithstanding the fact that today's margarines are actually a mixture of margarine and other ingredients. Regardless, to say that margarine is one molecule away from being another substance is meaningless. This would mean, if it made sense, that you could simply paste on one molecule and you'd have vinyl, or something like that. This is obviously impossible. However, let's play devil's advocate. Let's say this claim is true. One molecule makes a WORLD of difference! One ATOM makes a world of difference. It can mean the difference between water and hydrogen peroxide, for example, which Snopes pointed out in their writeup of this email.

The Cheez Whiz Connection

Note that Cheez Whiz was also accused of being one step away from plastic in a similar viral post and the margarine allegation probably borrowed this, or became confused by it, with whoever wrote it thinking it had been margarine instead of Cheez Whiz.

What is it that is supposed to be added to margarine to make it plastic? Never mind, it is already plastic, we've gone over that! I'll ignore the statement about paint, since basic margarine doesn't contain nearly 27 ingredients.

Ironically, since plastics can be made from petroleum oils, various researchers have been trying to figure out how to make what is called "bioplastics" from plant fatty acids but it is not as easy as adding a molecule to margarine! It has nothing to do with margarine, whatsoever.

After Mège first made his margarine product, others soon followed with improvements. I'll spare you the history of the spread and development of the margarine industry. But, the biggest change in margarine was the use of vegetable oils, which were made into margarine by a process called hydrogenation, to make the fats saturated, like animal fats, by artificial means. As you've probably guessed, margarine wasn't always called margarine, at least not everywhere. It was sometimes called just oleo, sometimes oleomargarine, sometimes margarine, and in Britain, Butterine.

Margarine Never Goes Bad?

You can bet that Mège's original margarine would not last forever. After all, it contained milk. But the compilation claims that margarine will never spoil, even at room temperature:

Open a tub of margarine and leave it open in your garage or shaded area. Within a couple of days you will notice a couple of things:

  • no flies, not even those pesky fruit flies will go near it (that should tell you something)
  • it does not rot or smell differently because it has no nutritional value; nothing will grow on it. Even those teeny weeny microorganisms will not a find a home to grow."

Is it true, is margarine like a Twinkie? No. Not true. Not even a Twinkie is like a Twinkie. Although margarine is very stable (that's the whole point), it will eventually go rancid, producing a sort of paint-like odor. Unsaturated fats, like vegetable and seed oils, go rancid faster than saturated ones, like animal fats and hydrogenated fats.

Margarine DOES Eventually Go Bad

Margarine will eventually go rancid from bacteria or mold colonization and bacteria and molds have all been found in margarine, in the water phase, which usually contains added ingredients such as emulsifiers. However, here is when things get truly interesting. Whereas vegetable oils are readily subject to oxidation rancidity, margarine, which contains an aqueous phase, as mentioned, is subject to a different type of rancidity, called hydrolitic rancidity. What happens is that, when moisture is present, fatty acids can be cleaved from triglyceride molecules by the enzymatic action of contaminating microbes. This releases free fatty acids, resulting in rancid, off-flavors. Margarine is well protected from this because of the dispersion of the water droplets, but eventually, through rancidification or the action of microorganisms, it will go bad.7,8

Pretty much any claim that a food product will never go bad should be ignored. There do not exist foods, even canned foods, that never go bad. Everything, eventually, is rendered inedible. Even canned water, like they used to store in the nuclear fallout shelters, had expiration dates! Keep in mind, however, that canned foods last many, many years after their printed use by dates.

Margarine Has been Around for Less Than 100 Years

Another claim made by the compilation, specifically reads:

Butter has been around for centuries where margarine has been around for less than 100 years.

I know this article has been very very long, but if you've been patient enough to follow along up to this point, dear reader, you already know that the claim that margarine has been around for less than 100 years is false. It has been around over 140 years. Regardless, how long a food has been around has nothing to do with how good or bad it is. Not that I am saying that you should be eating margarine off a spoon. In fact, I would recommend butter. Still not off a spoon.

The First Commercial Margarine Products

This section was not originally part of this article. I added it to clear up some confusion regarding "white" margarine products readers may remember from the 1940's. As described above, the first margarine was made from beef tallow. This gave it a pale yellow color, as well as some taste. The first commercial margarines were indeed produced from the tallow fats of beef, and perhaps other animal fats. These margarines were sold for over 30 years before the process of hydrogenation was invented and patented in 1902.

These tallow margarines were sold commercially as early as 1871 in countries such as Denmark, Netherlands, France, and Austria-Hungary. In the United States, the first commercial margarine was sold as early as 1874. In Germany, 1875, and in the U.K., 1889.

Health Claims

There are many health claims in the original message. I have ignored most of these in this article. This is because, if you read the message you can see that the entire purpose of the message was not to repeat claims of how margarine effects your health, but to drive home the purported difference between margarine and butter as discussed above.

That being said, although there is no credible evidence to back up some of the health claims, there is a kernel of truth to some of them. According to the evidence we have at present, trans fats should generally be avoided. In 2006 the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to list the amount of trans fats in their products. Most "margarine" products, marketed as butter substitutes, no longer contain any hydrogenated fats and any comparison between these modern products and the original margarine products are not intended in this article. Margarine is still available, however.

Why Am I Not Addressing "Modern" Margarines

I have recieved several related comments about the fact that this article has nothing to do with modern butter-substitutes such as "I Can't Believe its Not Butter" or "Country Crock" while others have informed me in various ways of how terrible margarine is, etc. Most readers expect such a "butter versus margarine" article to tell them what they already believe, that butter is better and more healthy than margarine. This was not my purpose. I have copied and pasted, with some minor alterations, the response to once such comment, as a final explanation:

This is more of an historical overview in response to the netlore, email chain, etc. that still circulates to this day, than any attempt to compare butter to the types of products that are now sitting on shelves. If fact, although they are still colloquially known as margarine, they are not margarine at all, and are not legally allowed to be called margarine. So, I am indeed comparing butter to margarine and not comparing butter to butter-substitute spreads.

While older margarine products relied on the use of hydrogenated fats, some may be concerned that these products replace the trans fat with more saturated fat, such as from palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil. It is worth mentioning that, although there has recently begun a health-craze concerning coconut oil as a supplement, these are not available to consumers as cooking oils at the grocery-store level, but are used in large-scale food production.

However, it is not true that this article only concerns margarine made over 100 years ago, as one reader commented. The type of margarine still available in the 1980's and into the 1990's would still be subject to these claims, and in fact, it is these more modern margarines made with vegetable oils rather than animal fats that the original netlore concerns. I've illustrated as much in my corrections of the incorrect margarine history given in the original message. That original is included below.

Original Internet Chain Message

Here is the original chain message compilation of 'facts' about butter and margarine as it still appears and is being circulated on the net:

Margarine was originally manufactured to fatten turkeys. When it killed the turkeys, the people who had put all the money into the research wanted a payback so they put their heads together to figure out what to do with this product to get their money back.

It was a white substance with no food appeal so they added the yellow coloring and sold it to people to use in place of butter. How do you like it? They have come out with some clever new flavorings….

DO YOU KNOW.. The difference between margarine and butter?

Read on to the end…gets very interesting!

Both have the same amount of calories. Butter is slightly higher in saturated fats at 8 grams; compared to 5 grams for margarine.

Eating margarine can increase heart disease in women by 53% over eating the same amount of butter, according to a recent Harvard Medical Study.

Eating butter increases the absorption of many other nutrients in other foods. Butter has many nutritional benefits where margarine has a few and only because they are added!

Butter tastes much better than margarine and it can enhance the flavors of other foods.

Butter has been around for centuries where margarine has been around for less than 100 years .

And now, for Margarine..

Very High in Trans fatty acids.

Triples risk of coronary heart disease …

Increases total cholesterol and LDL (this is the bad cholesterol) and lowers HDL cholesterol, (the good cholesterol)

Increases the risk of cancers up to five times..

Lowers quality of breast milk

Decreases immune response.

Decreases insulin response.

And here's the most disturbing fact… HERE IS THE PART THAT IS VERY INTERESTING!

Margarine is but ONE MOLECULE away from being PLASTIC… and shares 27 ingredients with PAINT.

These facts alone were enough to have me avoiding margarine for life and anything else that is hydrogenated (this means hydrogen is added, changing the molecular structure of the substance).

Open a tub of margarine and leave it open in your garage or shaded area. Within a couple of days you will notice a couple of things:

  • no flies, not even those pesky fruit flies will go near it (that should tell you something)
  • it does not rot or smell differently because it has no nutritional value ; nothing will grow on it. Even those teeny weeny microorganisms will not a find a home to grow.

Why? Because it is nearly plastic . Would you melt your Tupperware and spread that on your toast?

1. Hasenhuettl, Gerard L., and Richard W. Hartel. Food Emulsifiers and Their Applications. New York: Springer, 2008.
2. Gunstone, F. D., John L. Harwood, and F. B. Padley. The Lipid Handbook. London: Chapman and Hall, 1994.
3. Erickson, David R. Edible Fats and Oils Processing: Basic Principles and Modern Practices : World Conference Proceedings. Champaign, IL: American Oil Chemists' Society, 1990.
4. Brown, D. Clayton. King Cotton in Modern America: A Cultural, Political, and Economic History since 1945. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2011.
5. Clark, Stephanie, and F. W. Bodyfelt. The Sensory Evaluation of Dairy Products. New York, NY: Springer, 2009.
6. Mushet, Cindy, and Maren Caruso. The Art and Soul of Baking. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Pub., 2008.
7. Kilcast, David, and Persis Subramaniam. The Stability and Shelf Life of Food. Boca Raton: CRC, 2000.
8. Das, Debajyoti. Biochemistry. 12th ed. Kolkata: Academic, 2005.

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