What the History of Margarine Can Teach Us About Current Plant-Based Battles

The dairy industry has been fighting plant-based alternatives for a long time — but historically, it hasn’t exactly worked.

image of two sticks of margarine on wood plate held by two hands, history of margarine

Reported Food Industry

In recent years, the dairy industry has worked hard to hinder formidable competition from plant-based foods. The industry lobbied for legislation that would prevent companies from calling their plant-based dairy alternatives “milk” for instance, and petitioned the FDA to define milk as the product of “hooved animals.” It also launched numerous marketing campaigns portraying plant-based milks as unnatural and unhealthy, while romanticizing dairy milk as the only truly nutritious and all-American beverage.

While these tensions, which pit traditional animal products against more humane alternatives, might seem like a product of the 21st  century, they go all the way back to the 1870s, when a surge in the popularity of margarine prompted a heated battle over coloring, labeling, health and regulations that lasted almost a century.  

Here’s what the controversy around the so-called “demon spread” — aka margarine — can teach us about the current debates surrounding cultivated meats and other cruelty-free alternatives.

A Brief History of Margarine  

Margarine — a creamy butter substitute made primarily from vegetable oils — was invented by the French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés in 1869 after a food shortage prompted the French government to offer a prize to anyone who could create a cheap and effective alternative to butter. Mège-Mouriés rose to the challenge, creating a product he christened “oleomargarine,” which combined the Latin word for “olive oil” with the Greek word for “pearl.” Margarine is essentially a water-in-fat emulsion made through the intensive processing of refined vegetable oil and water. Though margarine originally used beef tallow as its primary fat source, the discovery of hydrogenation in 1900 allowed for the substitution of vegetable oils for animal fat from that point forward.

Margarine was patented in New York in 1871, paving the way for the product’s tremendous spread throughout the United States. In 1873, the Oleo Margarine Manufacturing Company opened in New York and quickly expanded to 37 plants across the country.

When margarine began hitting U.S. markets near the end of the 19th century, many consumers were already dissatisfied with the taste, quality and reliability of traditional butter. Butter was typically produced on small-scale farms, and the quality varied widely depending on the equipment, livestock and skill of the farmer. As historian Gerry Strey writes in Oleo Wars: Wisconsin’s Fight Over the Demon Spread, “So bad was the overall quality of Wisconsin butter that in Chicago markets, it was known as ‘Western grease,’ and was sold as a lubricant, not for human consumption.”

Though margarine offered a cheap and consistent alternative to this “Western grease,” it was initially met with some skepticism. Many consumers were turned off by margarine’s natural pale white color, and worried that the spread was a “poor man’s food” that they shouldn’t be serving to their family and guests. 

By the late 1880s, however, manufacturers began tinting margarine yellow to make it more closely resemble butter. Margarine ads touted the product as “made in the milky way” and “churned especially for lovers of good butter.” Margarine quickly became a boon to consumers who saw little difference in taste or appearance, but liked the spread’s consistent quality and cheaper price tag.

In 1881, 34 million pounds of margarine were sold in the United States. That number jumped to 126 million in 1902. The rise of margarine was so notable that one of the greatest novelists of the 19th century even had to comment upon it: In his 1883 memoir, Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain describes overhearing an enthusiastic margarine salesman calling out, “You are going to see the day, pretty soon, when you can’t find an ounce of butter to bless yourself with.”

How the Dairy Industry Responded 

Not surprisingly, the dairy industry did not react well to this novel competition. Margarine arrived on U.S. shores just as the dairy industry was transitioning from small-scale, local farms to large, industrialized operations concerned with maintaining their growth and cutting out competition. 

With margarine threatening to usurp butter, the dairy industry launched a full-scale offensive, calling into question the health and quality of margarine and attempting to police the language used to promote it. Strey writes, “In the United States, emotions and social values combined with economic self-interest to create a visceral enmity towards margarine, which evolved into a long running attempt to suppress it.”

In an 1890 cartoon from the Rural New Yorker, margarine is depicted as a monstrous three-headed hydra — one head for cottonseed oil, one for glucose and another for the general fraud that was oleomargarine — which farmers and townspeople had to rally around to defeat. 

The dairy industry and its political allies attempted to stoke fears about the butter alternative, portraying margarine as a fraudulent abomination that was deceiving customers, harming their health and threatening a more traditional way of life. Governor Lucius Hubbard of Minnesota called “oleomargarine and its kindred abominations” a “mechanical mixture” made through “the ingenuity of depraved human genius.” The industry claimed this lowly “imitation butter” was the product of tainted and unsanitary factory conditions, carefully ignoring the fact that butter was itself often sourced from cows living in crowded, filthy stables that bred disease. A satirical piece published in 1880 in Harper’s Weekly joked, “Affrighted epicures are informed that they are eating their old candle-ends and tallow-dip remnants in the guise of butter.”

Echoing strategies still employed today, the dairy industry began attempting to stifle plant-based dairy through regulation. It moved away from trying to change hearts and minds and instead went about trying to change state and federal legislation

In a bold first step, New York banned margarine outright in 1884, though the New York Court of Appeals — New York’s Supreme Court — quickly saw through the legislation and declared it unconstitutional, arguing that the New York law was nothing but a veiled attempt to protect the dairy industry from fair competition.

Wisconsin settled for intensive regulation, passing a law that made it illegal for margarine to call itself “butter” (sound familiar?) and even prohibiting restaurants and other businesses from substituting margarine in their establishments. The state later passed another law preventing the manufacture and sale of tinted margarine — requiring restaurants and hotels to post signage announcing they sold the spread on their premises. 

Federal legislation came next. In 1886, President Grover Cleveland signed the Oleomargarine Act into law, which imposed labeling and packaging requirements on margarine — defined as anything “made in imitation or semblance of butter” — as well as hefty taxes and prohibitive licensing fees on manufactures. That week, Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon showing a citizen knocking on the door of the U.S. Senate next to a sign that read, “Oleomargarine Bill Passed Both Sides of the House to Please the Dairy Men.”

But the Dairy Men still weren’t pleased. Throughout the final years of the 19th  century, the industry continued to lobby for more extensive legislation that would effectively regulate margarine out of existence.

At that point in time, animal fat was still a major component of margarine, and ironically, anti-margarine campaigners zeroed in on the cruel conditions of the slaughterhouse to further demonize the product. In 1902, Senator Joseph Quarles of Wisconsin gave a passionate speech to the Senate, declaring, “I desire butter that comes from the dairy, not from the slaughterhouse. I want butter that has the natural aroma of life and health. I decline to accept as a substitute caul fat, manufactured under the chill of death, blended with vegetable oils and flavored by a chemical trick.”

Of course, Quarles conveniently stayed silent on the brutality of dairy farms, instead romanticizing dairy as an all-American idyll in order to convince consumers that butter really was the superior product. 

Quarles’ argument lost some of its steam after the discovery of hydrogenation in 1900 made the use of beef tallow in margarine mostly a thing of the past. Nonetheless, the highly-contested Grout Bill passed Congress in 1902, mandating that margarine shipped from one state to another be subject to the laws of that state and imposing an onerous 10-cent tax on all colored margarine in the country. Most butter from corn-fed cows, which was typically pale-white like margarine, was also dyed yellow to meet consumer expectations, but the Grout Bill conveniently didn’t think it was necessary to tax that.

By 1902, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio had all banned margarine. Other states, 32 in total, simply focused on making sure margarine didn’t look like butter. Vermont, New Hampshire and South Dakota passed laws requiring margarine to be dyed pink; others wanted margarine to be red, brown or black. These so-called “pink laws” were overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it was illegal to enforce the adulteration of food, but the Court still upheld bans on the sale of yellowed margarine.

Of course, people found ways to work around these restrictions. Companies started selling coloring packets with white margarine so consumers could tint their margarine themselves. In an odd precursor to prohibition, thriving bootlegging industries cropped up in the states where margarine was banned. Bootleggers in some states faced up to $6,000 in fines, but these provisions weren’t heavily enforced, and the trade in outlaw margarine continued mostly unabated. In Wisconsin, consumers flocked to gas stations and shops on the border towns of Illinois to stock up on their prized counterfeit butter.

Did the Bans and Regulations Work?

Even in the face of federal restrictions and intense dairy industry opposition, margarine continued to thrive. Between the late 1920s and 1950s, butter consumption in the U.S. declined by one-third while margarine sales quadrupled. Throughout the Great Depression, margarine remained cheaper than butter, becoming a staple of many cash-strapped pantries. Margarine consumption also increased during WWII, when rationing made the spread an even more appealing alternative. As margarine made its way into cookbooks like the Coupon Cookery in 1943, the butter substitute quickly lost its stigma as a “poor man’s food.” Eleanor Roosevelt even appeared in a commercial for Good Luck Margarine, claiming she liked to spread it on her toast every morning.

Soybean farmers and cottonseed oil farmers, especially those in Southern states, also benefited from the popularity of margarine, and they continued to press lawmakers in their states to repeal laws that kept margarine relegated to a second-class spread.

After the federal government finally repealed its margarine tax in 1950, many other states followed suit. By the 1960s, Minnesota and Wisconsin were the only holdouts. It took Wisconsin until 1967 to repeal its margarine ban, and it did so with some serious caveats. To this day in Wisconsin, restaurants are still forbidden from serving margarine instead of butter unless a customer specifically requests it.

Margarine in Decline…As Other Plant-Based Spreads Rise 

According to recent statistics, butter may have taken back the reins. As of 2014, Americans are eating an average of 5.6 pounds of butter a year, compared to just 3.5 pounds of margarine. Still, brands like Blue Bonnet, Country Crock and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter are such a commonplace feature of the dairy aisle that it is hard to imagine a time when margarine was controversial. 

Meanwhile, despite attempts by the dairy industry to squash plant-based alternatives, the rest of the plant-based butter market is on track to experience “exponential” growth by 2030, according to business analysts. 

Likewise for plant-based milks — in spite of the dairy industry’s various creative schemes to convince consumers that plant-based milks are fraudulent and unhealthy —  almond, oat and soy are right at home next to dairy milks at grocery stores, and are only growing in popularity

For what it’s worth, the FDA thinks it’s perfectly fine for plant-based milks to call themselves “milk,” though the lawsuits meant to stifle plant-based companies will likely continue. While the threat of legal action may intimidate many plant-based companies from using perfectly legal language in the first place, at least when challenged, plant-based companies are winning: two federal judges in California dismissed class action lawsuits claiming that plant-based milks were deceiving customers.

Just as the dairy industry rallied against plant-based milks and margarine over the years, the meat industry is likely gearing up for a similar fight against cultivated proteins. But if the past has anything to teach us, it’s that consumer choice will often prevail — especially when shoppers are offered more humane, environmentally friendly alternatives.

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