Margarine and Other Dairy Spreads

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Margarine has been called “a creation of political intuition and scientific research.” It was invented by a French chemist in 1869, three years after Napoleon III had offered funds for the development of an inexpensive food fat to supplement the inadequate butter supply for his poorly nourished but growing urban populace. Others before Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès had modified solid animal fats, but he had the novel idea of flavoring beef tallow with milk and working the mixture like butter.
Margarine caught on quickly in the major European butter producers and exporters—Holland, Denmark, and Germany—in part because they had surplus skim milk from butter making that could be used to flavor margarine. In the United States large-scale production was underway by 1880. Here, the dairy industry and its allies in government put up fierce resistance in the form of discriminatory taxes that persisted into the 1970s. Today, basic margarine remains cheap compared to butter, and Americans consume more than twice as much margarine as butter. Scandinavia and northern Europe also favor margarine, while France and Britain still give a substantial edge to butter.