Tasteful Inventions: Fooling Around with Fatty Acids

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fooling Around with Fatty Acids

It's hard to believe margarine was actually invented. What is even more fascinating to me is the history of margarine. When the process for developing margarine was first patented by Hippolyte Mege-Mouries the theory was to attempt to duplicate butter. In essence, a manufactured substitute for butter; or a butter substitute. On July 15, 1869, French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries received his patent in Paris. The first margarine formula was originally comprised of finely minced beef suet which was heated with water. Chopped sheep's stomach was added as was potassium carbonate. The sheep ingredient was added for it's digestive enzymes properties which aided in the separation of the fat from the suet tissue. The remaining fat was then bleached with acid, digested with bicarbonate of soda and sliced udders. All was then churned with milk, water and coloring agent. The solids were then settled and the remains were a butter substitute, margarine, butterine. The name, oleomargarine, was inspired by the oil drops (oil of pearls) that remained and the Margaric acid which was used. The Greek word for pearl is also margaritari. The new solid fat or substitute for butter was a preview to the edible synthetic fat we use today. Ingredients used in margarine today can be soybean or vegetable oil churned with milk products and chemicals. Here is an excerpt from the History of Margarine from the National Association of Margarine.

Margarine was created by a Frenchman from Provence, France -- Hippolyte Mège-Mouriez -- in response to an offer by the Emperor Louis Napoleon III for the production of a satisfactory substitute for butter. To formulate his entry, Mège-Mouriez used margaric acid, a fatty acid component isolated in 1813 by Michael Chevreul and named because of the lustrous pearly drops that reminded him of the Greek word for pearl -- margarites. From this word, Mège-Mouriez coined the name margarine for his invention that claimed the Emperor’s prize. (source)

The term margarine may have been coined by Hippolyte Mège-Mouries but, it may have taken him quite a bit longer to concoct his invention if it hadn't been for the isolation process of fatty acids by Michel Eugène Chevreul, a true innovator in his own right who is credited with many chemical discoveries. Imagine what he must have accomplished in his 102 years. As an inexpensive substitute for butter, margarine initially caused fierce competition among manufacturers and quite a bit of confusion to consumers. As a matter of fact, when margarine was first introduced in England, it was called butterine. Butter producers objected and by virtue of the Margarine Act of 1886, the term margarine became the official "legal" term rather than butterine. Many margarine companies continued to call themselves "butterine" companies. When the Act of 1886 was passed, various imitations of and substitutes for butter, the principal ingredients of which were the fats of cattle and swine, were being manufactured and sold in large quantities. It was a flabby, greasy, sickly-looking compound of animal fat and oil that looked frankly, unappetizing. Although manufacturers had to pay a 10 percent duty if they colored the butterine a rich yellow tint to make it look more like butter, they did so quite willingly. Customers were more likely to spend to get more for their money on a butter substitute than the real thing. One account describes the process used by some manufacturers to make the final product more appealing. Men drove spades into the butterine which was 40 percent oleo oil, some cotton-seed oil, and questionably the rest was milk. Workers threw handfuls of it into machines that turned out two-pound pats and dropped the pats before women who wrapped wrapped them neatly." The high point for butterine came when it was given an award for good taste, appearance and color at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 as you can see in this New York times edition published October 26, 1893.

It is surprising to discover that by 1902, the term butterine was still in use by many manufactures whereas a pound of real butter sold from 20 to 25 cents, Butterine was available for 15 to 18 cents a pound. But, the American people still did not fully accept margarine. In 1930, the per capita consumption of margarine was 2.6 lbs. The per capita consumption of butter was 17.6 lbs. In the 1933 edition of The Story of Crisco, butterine is only mentioned once along with oleomargarine and lard components as suitable butter substitutes. Butterine has now made a tentative reappearance, being used informally from time to time as a term to describe spreads that are a combination of margarine and butter.

The patent of this invention was bought not by the French but by the Dutch who dominated the production of margarine for several decades. In 1870 or 1871, Hippolyte Mège Mouriez confidently revealed his invention to two Dutch entrepreneurs. The Dutch entrepreneurs, Jurgens and Samuel van den Bergh took his ideas, improved on them (keeping their improvements secret) and established a thriving margarine business that in the 20th century merged into the multinational conglomerate Unilever. Mr. Mège-Mouriez died a pauper.

The Federal Margarine Act of 1886 was the capstone of a movement to prevent consumers from enjoying the cheaper spread, which was introduced in 1874. The advocates of the Act, and of earlier state laws regulating the packaging and sale of margarine, argued they were preventing unscrupulous wholesalers and retailers from masking margarine as the more expensive dairy butter and duping unwitting consumers... Mège-Mouriès was given a French patent for his process in 1869 and a U.S. patent in 1873. His American patent was bought in 1874 by the U.S. Dairy Company, which went on to introduce margarine to the United States. The company opened 15 factories over the next seven years, with five in New York state. It and its subsidiary, the Commercial Manufacturing Company, made both margarine oil and margarine butter and led the industry with nearly 10 percent of the market. By 1882 the firm produced 50,000 pounds of margarine butter a day and more than half the 20 million pounds annually produced in New York state alone. (source)

1. History of Soy Oil Margarine
2. Margarine History
3. The Entire History of Margarine (interesting website in Denmark)