A wonder of the modern world

Food - Bee Wilson on hydrogenised fat

Margarine has, if you could only forget what it is, a lovely name. It comes from margarites, the Greek for "pearl". It should, therefore, be sheeny and precious. Instead, like many unfortunately named Margarets, it is generally cheap, tasteless and fat, better known by the abbreviation "marge".

I started wondering about margarine during an experiment with soya margarine Madeira cake the other day. My usual butter formula had started going wrong, separating and not rising properly, and I thought marge might be the answer. Certainly, it creamed with the sugar in no time and took four eggs without curdling. It rose beautifully, looked golden and the crumb was light and airy. I was just marvelling at the science of man-made hydrogenised fat when I tasted the first slice. The eleven other slices have been fed to ducks.

Yet margarine is indisputably a wonder of the modern world. It was invented, like pasteurisation and pain au chocolat, in France. In the Belle Epoque France of the 1860s, there was nevertheless a severe butter shortage. Napoleon III set up a competition to create a synthetic fat suitable for feeding the navy and the poorest classes, which was won in 1869 by a certain Hippolyte Mege-Mouries. Unlike Flora or Vitalite, Mege-Mouries's spread was animal-based. After observing starving cattle, he decided that butter fat was formed in the animal's udder from its own body fat. Mege-Mouries experimented with stirring together beef suet (oleo) with skimmed milk, water and a strip of udder, before discovering that a white fatty mass was produced.

Et voila! Delectable margarine. As it turns out, though, the name was a mistake: Mege-Mouries believed that the main component of his butter substitute was margaric acid, a pearl-like animal fat that does not in fact exist. And Mege-Mouries's invention fully took off only after the development of hydrogenisation in 1905, which meant that practically any liquid vegetable oil - safflower, sunflower, soy, peanut, olive, palm, coconut, cottonseed, to name only the more palatable - could be converted into a hard block.

American dreams were being built on the manufacture of "oleomargarine". By 1876, a million pounds of "butterine" were being exported to Britain. Mark Twain overheard a businessman revelling in the "thousands of tons" that he was selling: "Butter don't stand any show - there ain't any chance for competition." But the government had other ideas. For most of the 20th century, margarine manufacturers in America fought a series of Federal Margarine Acts that placed prohibitive taxes on yellow-dye (consumers would mix their own colour into white marge) and limited the sale and use of the spread more stringently than the sale and use of guns. As late as 1996, federal law prohibited the retail sale of margarine in packages larger than one pound.

However, margarine's rise was unstoppable, helped by high butter prices in the postwar era. Throughout its history, this ultimate synthetic food has reflected aspirations of nature, goodness and richness. Now we have the cholesterol-lowering claims of Benecol, and the olive-oil-in-the-Tuscan-countryside hopes of Olivio. In 1950, American brands performed more naive-seeming deceptions: Cloverbloom, Sunnyland, Blue Bonnet, Good Luck, Farm Belle and Table Maid were among the favoured marques. Margarine has always tried to be like butter. But better than butter: creamier, cheaper, healthier, lower in fat. What must never be mentioned, if the illusion is to be preserved, is the multi-stage manufacturing process of degumming, washing, bleaching, hydrogenisation, filtering, refining, deodorising, piping and emulsifying that those "healthy" oils undergo before they reach the wrapper or tub.

The official margarine website, www.margarine.org, claims that the attributes of a good margarine product are uniform colour, spatter resistance, spreadability, meltability, freshness . . . oh, and flavour. Being pearl-like is not included.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - How we have lost the joy of sex