In 1869, Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory substitute for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes. French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés invented a substance he called oleomargarine, the name of which became shortened to the trade name “margarine”. Mège-Mouriés patented the concept in 1869 and expanded his initial manufacturing operation from France but had little commercial success. In 1871, he sold the patent to the Dutch company Jurgens, now part of Unilever.
Margarine, has become a major part of the Western diet and overtook butter in popularity in the 1960’s. In the United States, for example, in 1930 the average person ate just over 2 pounds (0.91 kg) of margarine. By the end of the 20th century, an average American ate nearly 8 lb (3.6 kg) of margarine. Last year The United States exported 2,000,000,000 lb of margarine.
But few people realise how it is made.
(from The Oxford Campanion to food, Alan Davidson)
First oils are de-gummed by heating them with 5% water to 90 degrees C. Impurities such as carbohydrates, proteins, phosphlipids and resins are hydrated (combined with water) and blended into an oil-insuluable gum which is removed by centrifuging.
The oils are then neutralised to remove free fatty acids which might give unwanted flavours. They are heated in 25-ton batches with caustic soda at 75 to 96 degrees for half an hour, which changes the acids to soap. The soap is washed out with water and oil subjected to a vacuum to evaporate any water that remaines in it.
The next stage is to bleach out any plant pigments – chlorophyll and cartenoids – by adding 1% of fullers’s earth, a strongly absorbent powder, and heating the oil to 90 to 110 degrees C for a while under vacuum, after which it is filtered.
The oil is then catalytically hydrogenated: that is to say, treated with hydrogen in the presence of nickel as the catalyst to saturate it and to harden it to a required degree. The process is carried out in a sealed, gas-filed vessel at a high pressure and a temperature of 180 degrees C. It may also be interederfied: a process which rearranges the fat molecules and raises the melting point. Both hydrogenation and interesterification produce side products, so the oil has to be neutralised and bleached again. It is also deodorised by passing superheated stream at 180 degrees through it in very a very high vacuum to prevent oxidation (chemical reaction with the oxygen in the air which would produce off flavours).
The refined oils are then blended. Liquid oils and hard fats are combined in proportions that will give the required solidity. There must be some oils with a melting point below 34 degrees C so that the margarine will melt in the mouth when eaten as a spread.
Now the oil phase is given vitamins A and D; colour, which may be natural or synthetic annatto or beta carotene; flavourings, including delta lactons, small amounts of butyric and caproic acid, and diacetyl if necessary (all flavourings naturally present in butter); salt; ad up to 0.5% of emulsifiers such as lecithin (made from soya beans) and monoglycerides (made from organic acids and glycerol).
Then the oil and aqueous phases are emulsified in a rotator. This is a metal tube chilled by a cooling jacket to -18 degrees C. Inside it metal blades revolve, churning the contents and scraping the walls. As the margarine solidifies it is scraped off by the blades and thrown into a “tempering tube” 18cm wide and 3 m long. It takes two minutes to travel along this tune, during which it is pressed and slightly warmed to consolidate it. Finally, the margarine is extruded and packaged.
Would you eat this stuff?