Monday , 24 September 2018
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Margarine – A brief history

Zubin D’Souza

War is a crazy thing. People fight, both sides lose and both sides claim a victory.

Nothing good has ever come from a war.

War also brings with it scarcity. It is in times of scarcity that humankind has been at its most creative peak.

Although our shameful truth is that our race has made the most advances in the art of killing our fellow humans, there have also been some rather interesting developments that have come out of our warring years.

The story of margarine is one that has had a similarly interesting beginning.

It did not really begin in times of war. It began in more peaceful times but it was during the time of war that it reached the zenith of its development.

The tale began in a not so interesting manner in 19th century France.

In 1813, Michel Eugene Chevreul stumbled across a new fatty acid that he dubbed acide margarique. The name was inspired by the Greek word margarite which meant that it glowed with a subtle pearl like brilliance. This was a direct reference to the colour of the shiny fatty deposits that he had discovered. He did not manage to do much with his discovery except get the odd reference in articles such as these which are written by grumpy old chefs.

He missed out on a proclamation that was to come about fifty years later.

Emperor Napoleon III was always on the lookout for a nation to annex. With his efforts directed towards war, he thought that it would be nice to have his troops happy while they were far away from home on the battlefields.

He announced that a prize would be awarded to anyone who could create an effective butter substitute.

Enter French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries!

He churned beef fat with milk, created a highly acceptable substitute, called it oleomargarine which basically meant pearly, lustrous oil and he walked away with the prize.

The French in their usual culinary snobbery did not take well to the option that was thrown their way and poor Hippolyte died a pauper!

The Dutch however bought the rights to the process for a song, made minor improvements, dyed it yellow so that it looked like butter and not the pale grey original colour and managed to create a market for their product.

Dairy farmers started objecting to the new improved and significantly cheaper product that threatened their livelihoods.

They successfully lobbied to have additional taxes levied; to abolish the use of colour, dye or pigmentation and in some cases to have absolutely horrid colours to show differentiation.

The results were that there was a period of time when margarine was pink in colour! The dairy farmers wanted it to look as disgusting as possible to cut down on the sale!

Other entrepreneurs were slightly more pragmatic. They simply sold the margarine with the dye separately and created a funky do-it-yourself kit for their clients.

The war years – first with the Great War at the beginning of the 20th century and then with the Second World War were actually golden opportunities for margarine.

In the first war, shortage of dairy meant that margarine manufacturers had to search for alternative sources to ensure that their production lines were not halted.

They stumbled across a variety of vegetable based oils that could be used in the manufacturing process and eliminated the need for animal products altogether.

In the Second World War, the scarcity of butter and its availability only on the black market buoyed the margarine industry by having customers quickly switch over to the readily available product.

To hammer the final nail in the coffins of the dairy farmers, margarine manufacturers lobbied hard enough to make any additions to butter illegal. Suddenly the products that made butter spreadable were no longer allowed in them. Faced with a bread spread that sat like a dodgy pile of dog doo-doo in the centre, butter kind of lost the good fight which made margarine the valuable product that it is today. But is it healthier than butter? The answer to that follows next week!

 

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