I Can’t Believe It’s Pink Margarine

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
When producer Chris Berube was growing up, he spent a lot of time with his grandparents, in a suburb just outside of Montreal.

Chris Berube:
I loved those visits. But coming from English Canada, I couldn’t help but notice all the subtle differences when I was in Quebec. Like how all the gas stations had this winking tired owl logo on the outside. Or how the Simpsons all spoke with working-class Montreal French accents.

[Quebec Simpsons Clip]

Chris Berube:
But this one thing really got to me. Every morning, I would sit down for breakfast, and get my toast, and I would look in the butter dish and there would be margarine. Right?? Ok, that’s not so weird, lots of people like margarine, but let me explain. Margarine is this spread made with vegetable oil that’s supposed to closely mimic butter.

[IMPERIAL MARGARINE AD]
“Pass the butter please, Vicky. Vicky, the butter.”
“Hey what’s going on?”
“I switched from butter to Imperial Margarine.”
“You mean THIS is margarine?!”

Chris Berube:
But there was something off about my grandparents’ margarine. It didn’t look like butter. In fact, it actually kinda looked like lard.

Roman Mars:
The reason for this was a Quebec law that prohibited yellow margarine. For years in Quebec, the faux butter spread wasn’t a soft, buttery color. Instead, it was a pale, greyish white.

Chris Berube:
And, as a kid, I just didn’t get it. Why would anyone make a law about the color of margarine? Who cares? At the time, I wrote it off as just another specific Quebec thing…

Roman Mars:
But, it turns out the law in Quebec was just one small battle in a global, 150-year war to destroy margarine — and everything that it stands for. And in its fight for survival, margarine has had to reinvent itself, over and over again.

Chris Berube:
Our relationship to food is always changing. Like, I have no idea if we think eggs are good or bad at this point. But the story of margarine is particularly turbulent. Margarine has been this bellwether for different food trends and fads in diet culture. The fickle public has gone back and forth on margarine so many times, it feels like whiplash. The story of margarine, this boring spread, is an epic saga with four dramatic chapters.

[MUSIC]

[VOICEOVER: Chapter One. A Miracle of Science]

Roman Mars:
The reason we have margarine is because of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte III. I mean, of course, right? You probably could have guessed that. In the 1860s, France was heading towards a war with Prussia, and Napoleon III had to find a cheap way to feed the entire French navy.

Elaine Khosrova:
Napoleon III put out a call for an invention of a spread that could replace butter that was portable for his troops and also cheaper to produce.

Chris Berube: This is food historian Elaine Khosrova.

Elaine Khosrova:
And I am the author of “Butter: A Rich History.”

Chris Berube:
A terrific name for a book.

Elaine Khosrova:
Seemed obvious.

Roman Mars:
Napoleon III set up as a contest, with a cash prize, for whoever could make the best fake butter.

Chris Berube:
The standout was from a French chemist named Hippolyte Mege-Mouries, called oleomargarine. Later, they just dropped the “oleo” part.

Elaine Khosrova:
And this one particular chemist came up with this mixture of beef caul fat, so this kind of excess beef fat that’s trimmed off, which he reduced to an oil and then mixed with milk and salt.

Chris Berube:
Yeah, the process does not sound great .. but it tasted pretty good!

Elaine Khosrova:
Apparently, it was quite palatable. I’ve been tempted a couple of times to try to reproduce it, just to know what it tasted like. But so far I’ve not done that. So actually the very first margarine was certainly an animal product, not anything like the margarines we have today or have had for the last hundred years.

Roman Mars:
Margarine had a lot going for it. It was cheaper than butter. It kinda, sorta tasted like butter. And it was perfect for the navy, because it could be taken on long sea voyages and it wouldn’t go rancid. But the French really love their butter so at first, margarine did not take off.

Chris Berube:
Mege-Mouries sold his patent in the 1870s, and this could have been it for margarine. It could have become one of the thousands of food products that roll out with lots of hype and they disappear, like Crystal Pepsi or Doritos Wow. But margarine found a ready market, across the ocean, in America…

Roman Mars:
Under the guidance of the deceptively named United States Dairy Company, margarine was introduced to Americans. And shoppers were excited. Because around this time, butter was expensive, and if you didn’t have money, your alternative was buying rancid butter. Or another product called “renovated butter.” Which was… really gross.

Elaine Khosrova:
Renovated butter was essentially butter that had gone bad or cream that didn’t really churn correctly and they would so-called “renovate it.” They would process it, you know, adding more salt, some oils. They would just basically put in whatever they could to make it cohesive and spreadable with little regard for taste. I mean it was generally really nasty stuff.

Roman Mars:
Given the truly disgusting alternatives, shoppers flocked to margarine. By 1882, New York state was producing over 20 million pounds a year.

Chris Berube:
So, rich people got to enjoy their creamy, non-rancid butter, and the rest of us got slightly less creamy but still non-rancid margarine. And everybody was happy. Everybody except for dairy farmers. They panicked. Dairy farmers were like …

Christopher Burns:
Wait a second, you’re producing a cheaper alternative to what we’re selling, that looks exactly the same as what we’re selling and to at least to some palates, it is indistinguishable.

Chris Berube:
This is Christopher Burns.

Christopher Burns:
I’m an archivist at the Silver Special Collections Library at the University of Vermont and a butter historian.

Chris Berube:
Yes, for those keeping track, I found two butter historians. Yeah, I know how to do this job.

Roman Mars:
The butter lobby felt threatened by margarine. They weren’t about to stand by and watch this upstart become the new popular bread spread. Big butter had to fight back.

[MUSIC]

[VOICEOVER: Chapter Two. A Public Enemy]

Chris Berube:
The dairy lobby helped spread rumors and innuendo about the looming threat of margarine.

Elaine Khosrova:
The start of this campaign of disinformation about margarine and where it came from and what went into it. So there was this kind of lurid campaign against margarine.

Chris Berube:
Tell me about this disinformation campaign, like, what were the crazy rumors going around about margarine?

Elaine Khosrova:
They mostly painted a picture of it as being the slag from butchers shops.

Chris Berube:
Here’s Nathalie Cooke, from McGill University in Montreal. She’s a food historian… a food historian who sometimes talks about butter. Yeah, that’s right, THIRD BUTTER HISTORIAN. Anyway, the disinformation campaign went to some wild extremes. There were editorial cartoons which made margarine sound awful.

Nathalie Cooke:
Some of the earlier cartoons show these wonderful vats of oil with things being thrown into them. Shoes, animals, you know, the odd mouse, the sort of disgusting things that one wouldn’t want to see so that it could all be boiled down into margarine. And so that was the argument: what is in this rather ugly mess of fat?

Chris Berube:
The campaign wasn’t limited to rumors about the content of margarine. The dairy lobby also promoted stories about fraud. Unethical shopkeepers, who tricked their customers by pretending that margarine was butter. The Butter and Cheese Exchange actually sent out an inspector around to test out suspicious products.

Christopher Burns:
This inspector goes into this store and he finds this product being sold for the same price as butter. But it’s not butter and they take it to a chemist and it’s shown to be not butter, so there’s a lot of that going on.

Chris Berube:
It’s unclear how much butter fraud was actually happening. But the stories were effective. And soon, politicians across America were passing laws to try to stop the spread of margarine.

Roman Mars:
Butter fraud became a crime in New York state and Maryland, punishable by 30 days in prison. The margarine war was getting intense. In 1884, New York state even tried to pass a full ban on margarine, but an appeals court struck that down, because… come on, it’s margarine.

Chris Berube:
Other states tried to ban it, with mixed success. So pro-butter politicians had an idea. If they couldn’t ban margarine – maybe they could make it so unpleasant, no one would want to eat it.

Roman Mars:
Across the country, states passed laws that required margarine to be dyed, so it didn’t look like butter. Some states toyed with red or even black margarine. But one color became the most prominent.

Nathalie Cooke:
Vermont in 1884, New Hampshire and West Virginia in 1891, all required that it be colored pink. So imagine spreading pink margarine on your bread. Talk about something very unappetizing at your morning breakfast.

Chris Berube:
Laws about the color of margarine were on the books until the 1950s and 60s in many states. And they lingered in places like Quebec into the early 2000s, when I spread that white-grey margarine on my toast.

Roman Mars:
Margarine color laws were completely hypocritical because food dye is used in butter all the time.

Nathalie Cooke:
Butter actually changes color at different seasons of the year. So depending on the cow’s diet, obviously butter can look quite different.

Chris Berube:
The margarine color laws served as a de facto ban in a lot of states. It just didn’t make sense for manufacturers to dye some of their margarine pink, then truck it across state lines, and sell it to customers who already thought, because of propaganda, that it was made of, I don’t know, pigeon beaks or something.

Roman Mars:
Margarine became an embarrassing thing to eat.

Elaine Khosrova:
It was definitely for the working class. And that’s why it was such a stigma to have some awfully colored food on your plate. It just meant, oh, you’re poor, you’re working class. I think they were really trying to keep it out of the middle… of the so-called middle class. You know, like the poor people got what they got. I think they were really trying to keep it from going any further.

Chris Berube:
Finally, Congress got involved and tried to kill margarine once and for all. In 1886, a bill was introduced that would require a ten-cent tax on every pound of margarine sold. A tax so big that it would definitely kill the margarine industry. Supporters of the bill pulled out all the rhetorical stops, and put it in moralistic terms, saying margarine was unnatural and industrial. While butter was pure and beautiful. Here’s a quote from House member David Henderson of Iowa.

[DAVID HENDERSON/VOICEOVER]
You will find butter in the Bible from Genesis to Revelations. You will hardly find a book in the Bible that does not speak of butter. The article came to use before profane history was written. Milk and butter have been the food of man from time immemorial, and you do not need medical certificates or the resolutions of boards of trade to tell you that butter is a wholesome article of food.

Chris Berube:
He went on like this for quite some time.

[DAVID HENDERSON/VOICEOVER]
Herodotus speaks of butter four hundred and sixty years before the Christian era.

Chris Berube:
And then, after talking about how butter was in ancient Rome and the land of milk and honey, and all this other stuff, Henderson finally got to margarine.

[DAVID HENDERSON/VOICEOVER]
Now, let me give you the first record I find of oleomargarine. In the fourth act of the play of Macbeth, where there was a little cotillion of witches, I find oleomargarine completely described.

Chris Berube:
If you haven’t read Macbeth in a while, it’s the “double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble” speech.

Roman Mars:
Just to be clear, eye of newt and toe of frog is not what margarine is made from. But I think you get his point.

Chris Berube:
There was a lot of talk like this. Butter is pastoral and ancient. And margarine is basically witchcraft. It didn’t matter that margarine was just a spread you put on toast. It had come to represent so much more. Ultimately, the Margarine Act passed. But the tax was reduced to two cents, and the industry survived. Margarine was hanging on by a toe. But in the twentieth century…. it came roaring back.

[MUSIC]

[VOICEOVER: Chapter Three. A war hero, and a health food]

Roman Mars:
In the early twentieth century, margarine became more commonplace. A new process called hydrogenation made it possible to use vegetable oils in margarine instead of beef and pork fat. Sure, margarine was still a processed mystery food, but now it was a processed mystery food that was made from vegetables. Margarine also got a boost from the two World Wars.

Elaine Khosrova:
First of all, there was a butter shortage during the wars, partly because men and boys went off to fight the war. So there was less of a workforce on the dairy farms, but also because a lot of butter was shipped to the troops, they would have actual real butter. So margarine could kind of fill the gap. Really, I mean, almost overnight, the battle against margarine just went away.

Chris Berube:
Americans were getting a taste for margarine, and you know what? They kinda liked it. Sales went up, and in the post-war era, margarine producers spent money on luxuries like advertising and celebrity endorsements.

[ELEANOR ROOSEVELT MARGARINE AD]
Years ago, most people never dreamed of eating margarine, but times have changed!

Roman Mars:
That is the voice… of Eleanor Roosevelt.

[ELEANOR ROOSEVELT MARGARINE AD CONTINUES]
Nowadays, you can get a margarine like the new Good Luck, which really tastes delicious. That’s what I’ve spread on my toast. Good Luck. I thoroughly enjoy it.

Chris Berube:
For years, margarine sales climbed, and ads flooded the airwaves, telling consumers that margarine could do all the same stuff as butter, at a fraction of the price. Some of the ads didn’t even reference butter by name.

[IMPERIAL MARGARINE AD]
Now Imperial combines the best of both table spreads! The best qualities of margarine — easy spreadability, consistent quality — and the best qualities of nature’s own spread — natural taste, natural aroma.”

Roman Mars:
Political opposition to margarine slowly melted away. And by 1967, all the American laws regulating margarine color had been repealed.

Chris Berube:
By the 1970s, Americans were eating about 10 pounds of margarine per person every year. And as margarine became more widely adopted, it developed a new reputation. This spread used to be reviled as a mystery substance full of animal bits. But as diet culture changed, margarine became a health food.

Elaine Khosrova:
On the heels of the war and rationing, then you have this postwar period, where the issue of heart disease became something of a crisis in this country because there were so many middle-aged executives dying of heart disease.

Roman Mars:
After World War II, a consensus formed among food scientists that saturated fats were the root cause of American heart disease. Suddenly, butter was a big no-no. And margarine took over the dairy aisle.

Elaine Khosrova:
It did eclipse butter in sales. And again, this was around the 70s, the 80s. It did eclipse butter. So they literally changed places on the graph.

Chris Berube:
Yes, margarine was riding high. Nothing could stop America’s favorite butter substitute!

[VOICEOVER: Chapter Four. Something Stops Margarine]

Roman Mars:
While nutritionists were singling out animal fats, they weren’t paying attention to the problems with vegetable oil. The hydrogenation process created a new kind of fat called “trans fat.”

Chris Berube:
By the early 2000s, pretty much everybody knew that trans fats were bad for you. I think you remember the giant panic about this.

[NEWS MONTAGE]
A big announcement from the FDA, requiring companies to phase out all trans fat from our foods saying this could save up to 7,000 lives a year…

With the FDA’s announcement about trans fat, you probably wonder what are trans fats doing in our food in the first place.

We all know that trans fats are probably worse than saturated fats all along. That the margarine is worse than the butter all along.

Roman Mars:
Margarine producers largely got rid of hydrogenated oil, but it was too late. Today, Americans eat a lot more butter than margarine. Land O Lakes, the biggest butter producer in America, says butter sales were up 20% last year because of the boom in pandemic baking.

Chris Berube:
My grandmother still has margarine in her fridge. Only now, it’s yellow. In 2008, over 130 years after the first margarine laws, Quebec finally allowed yellow margarine. But it wasn’t because of some big public outcry. It’s because nobody cared anymore. It’s hard to imagine there was a time when people tried to outlaw margarine or shared disinformation about it.

Roman Mars:
But we shouldn’t count margarine out. Recently, it’s become tied to another major food trend. As more people cut animal products out of their diet, there’s been a rise in “plant-based butters.” These butters are marketed with pastoral names like Earth Balance. But if you look at the list of ingredients, these so-called butters look a whole lot like margarine. The only difference is, they’re vegan.

Chris Berube:
I see this plant-based revival as the latest evolution for margarine, a way of lashing itself onto another cycle in our food culture. Margarine keeps riding this big pendulum of taste of what we think is good for us or bad for us. And along the way, it’s been a miracle of science, then a villain, then a war hero, and a health food, but above all, it’s been a survivor.

Roman Mars:
More margarine mysteries, after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So I’m back with Chris Berube and Chris, I hear you have a couple more margarine… marginalia stories for us.

Chris Berube:
Indeed, I do. Roman, I have so much margarine knowledge that I need to spread across our listenership.

Roman Mars:
(laughs) Okay. Despite that wordplay, you can go ahead.

Chris Berube:
Thank you. So there are so many twists and turns in this story that we weren’t able to get to. And one example is, did you know, Roman, in New Zealand until 1974, you needed a note from a doctor to get margarine? That’s how afraid people were of its health effects. And here’s the big one I really wanted to talk about. So Roman, remember how we have been talking about the pink margarine laws and those getting repealed…

Roman Mars:
And those were laws where essentially that they were making margarine manufacturers add artificial dyes to make them slightly less palatable, so they didn’t compete with butter.

Chris Berube:
That’s it. Yeah, exactly right. And actually, the reason those were repealed is because of the Supreme Court. So in 1898, the Supreme Court overruled a law in New Hampshire requiring margarine to be pink. And they said, “the state has no power to provide that margarine shall be colored or rather discolored by adding a foreign substance to it.” So that struck down laws saying that margarine had to be pink or red or black. But there were still laws on the books in lots of states saying that margarine could not be yellow so it’s the kind of law we talked about with Quebec that was still in effect until the 2000s.

Roman Mars:
So margarine had to be it’s kind of… like it couldn’t be dyed to make it unpalatable, but it also couldn’t be dyed in some places to make it more palatable, more butter-like. It was just the kind of pearly white, you know, substance that you encountered when you were a kid.

Chris Berube:
That’s right. And actually Roman, the last holdout in the United States to have a law like this was Wisconsin, who had a law like this on the books until 1967.

Roman Mars:
Well, that makes sense. They’re like the dairy state. So they, you know, you can imagine that they were, like, extra protective of their home industry.

Chris Berube:
Yeah. To stereotype Wisconsin, yes, that is why this happened. So there were these laws on the books saying you couldn’t put yellow food dye in margarine, and actually the Federal Act was amended to add this big tax to any margarine that used yellow food dye. So producers tried to figure out ways around this. So the people who make margarine around World War I started using oils that gave margarine sort of a natural yellow color. So they weren’t dying it yellow, it was part of the production process so they used coconut oil, which gave it kind of a yellowish hew. And then politicians were like, we see what you’re doing here, we don’t like this. So then they just banned all yellow margarines whether it was a natural color or a food dye. They either banned it or they taxed it. And the margarine producers had to figure out another way around it. So they started sending out the white tubes of margarine with little yellow dye packs so you could mix in the yellow color at home into your margarine.

Roman Mars:
So it’s like a home project.

Chris Berube:
Exactly.

Roman Mars:
That’s hilarious.

Chris Berube:
It’s like this family activity. You can all be together where you’re kind of stirring it in. And it’s funny. There was actually in the 50s in Canada, there was this series of ads starring this fictional homemaker named Brenda York, who showed people how to do this, like how to do the mixing. So here’s Nathalie Cooke, she is one of our food historians.

Nathalie Cooke:
She’s suggesting that a, it’s an economic spread for your bread. It’s tasty. She’s also having to make a rather difficult argument. She’s having to show us in real-time that it’s a very pleasant activity to be massaging the nipple of dye into a rather horrible mess of margarine. And so she’s wearing a white lab coat and smiling all the time as she is demonstrating that this can be done pleasantly, efficiently, quickly.

Chris Berube:
Now I know how that sounds. It doesn’t sound pleasant, efficient or quick.

Roman Mars:
It sounds awful. It does not sound fun at all.

Chris Berube:
It really doesn’t it? And during the process of reporting this, I actually found somebody who remembers using those dye packs who was around when they were still for sale. And one of the experts I spoke to for this story is Marion Nestle. She’s a food historian. She’s written quite a few books. Professor emeritus at NYU. And when I brought this up with Mary… and here’s how she described the process of mixing the dye into the margin.

Marion Nestle:
Well, you got this white block of fat and then you got a packet of food dye and with great effort, you mix them together so it would look like butter. But people didn’t want to eat it. It was awful looking.

Chris Berube:
She told me it came up very stripey So even if you tried to mix it together, it just never totally mixed.

Roman Mars:
You could totally imagine it not working well at all. And you also can really tell that she seems to have a pretty strong disdain for margarine and this process.

Chris Berube:
Yeah, I would say her distaste for margarine has carried over from childhood. Actually, this is one of the first things that she said to me during the interview.

Marion Nestle:
My response to hearing that you were interested in margarine was, does anybody still eat it?

Chris Berube:
So yeah, obviously that’s a bit of an exaggeration. As we were talking about, there are people for religious reasons or dietary reasons or habit, who still love margarine and the new big thing is these plant-based butters which do have a lot of similarities to margarine. So margarine, it’s a survivor. It’s hanging in there.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. And it’s such a fascinating story. So thank you so much for bringing it to us and this little extra bit just to gross us out at the very end.

Chris Berube:
I just want to give everyone a lovely image to go home with from our margarine story. Thanks a lot, Roman.

Roman Mars:
Thanks, Chris.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube and edited by Joe Rosenberg. Mix and tech production by Dara Hirsch. Music by our director of sound Swan Real. Brandon Hackett was the voice of David Henderson.

Delaney Hall is the executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Lasha Madan, Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.

 

  1. MG Boudreau

    When Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, the production of margarine was already banned in the rest of Canada.

    Margarine, manufactured by the Newfoundland Margarine Company, was so important in the soon to be new province that it was explicitly protected in the terms of the agreement to join the confederation of Canada.

    So the ability to manufacture and market margarine was part of the terms of creating the new Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador and is historically interwoven in the history of Canada.

  2. Pekka

    Referring to these “plant based butters” as any form of butter shows exactly why we need and have always needed some way to distinguish butter from its alternatives.

    Thankfully it is mostly just dealt with by labelling requirements in most of the world. No need for silly colour laws.

  3. Karen Leeds

    Love the humor Chris brought to this unexpected history of something we eat on the reg! For some reason, I esp liked when he said something to the effect of, yes that’s the second butter historian. I totally know how to do my job. 😁 🧈 💛

  4. Alex

    I am getting ContraPoints vibes on the production of this episode. The chapter title voice has got to be an intentional homage, right?

  5. Teresita

    My mother, Laura Patton (1920-2014), told us the story of an Oregon State Legislator who opposed the state law banning the sale of yellow margarine. That Legislator stood at the podium in the State Capitol in Salem and went through the ridiculous, messy, and very time-consuming process of working a capsule of yellow dye into a batch of white margarine. That was the end of that law in Oregon.

  6. KevinD

    I can’t believe you didn’t tie this back to the episode about romance novels. After all, Fabio doing the “I can’t believe it’s not butter” commercial was a classic!

    I’d have to call this one a bit random for design, but I enjoyed it as always!

  7. KevinD

    Love the tie-in to Fabio with your episode on romance novel covers. It didn’t come through on the audio version, but I see the website has it covered!

  8. Scott K

    There’s an old comedy radio show called “The Great Gildersleeve” now available online (which was coincidentally the first sitcom spinoff ever, as Gildy used to appear on the “Fibber McGee and Molly” show) featuring the domestic antics of Gildy and his family. It was sponsored by “Parkay Margarine, the wholesome spread your family will love!” I can’t prove it, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Gildy’s sweet and wholesome daughter was named Marjorie.

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