It looks and color like butter, it’s in the refrigerated section right next to the butter but … it’s not butter. Born in Napoleonic France as a more affordable alternative, margarine is consumed at breakfast under the pretext of being healthier for its plant origin. But is it really?

The origin of margarine

Although we can now go to the supermarket and find a wide variety of products and alternatives, it has not always been this way. Margarine originates from 19th century France, where Emperor Napoleon III was searching for a cheap substitute for butter that could be preserved over time without losing its nutrients (“fatty substance similar to butter, but lower in price, able to keep for a long time without deteriorating while retaining its nutritional value“).

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A pharmacist came up with the recipe for margarine by emulsifying fractionated beef fat with milk and water, which he called oleomargarine, a very long and uncommercial name that ended up being shortened to the term we use now. It was patented in 1872, but it was not until World War II when margarine became popular as a substitute for butter.

How margarine is “made”

Much has happened since the pharmacist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés came up with the recipe for margarine, giving way to a large industrial scale manufacturing in which vegetable fat has been replacing animal fat.

And is that vegetable oils are abundant in nature and, following Napoleon’s premises, they are very cheap as is the case with palm oil. However, corn, sunflower, olive, coconut or peanut oils are used in the production of margarine. The problem is that at room temperature they are liquid. So after refining them, they go through a process called hydrogenation, key in this story.

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Hydrogenation partially or totally saturates the oil with hydrogen to alter its melting point, achieving a specific solid curve. Or what is the same: it makes the oils more stable, achieving a solid texture similar to those of animal origin and minimizes oxidative rancidity.

In a simplified way, oils are long chains of long acids made up of carbon atoms linked together. If each carbon atom is attached to two carbons and two hydrogens (by single bonds), then it is saturated and is solid at room temperature. This is the case of butter.

But if the carbon atoms are linked together with double bonds, then they are unsaturated. If we add hydrogen atoms, nickel as a catalyst and certain temperature conditions “to the shaker”, then this carbon double bond breaks and each carbon atom joins two hydrogen atoms, becoming saturated. We already have the margarine.

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Cis Trans

Side B of this process is the way the hydrogen atoms are arrangedInstead of being on the same side of the chain, they are on opposite sides, forming trans fatty acids. This configuration is rare in nature, with hydrogenated vegetable oils from the food industry being the main source.

However, not all vegetable oils are the same: olive oil supports this process better thanks to the stability conferred by its greater presence of monounsaturated acids, something that hinders its oxidation to produce trans fats.

The partial hydrogenation process generates high amounts of trans fatty acids, for this reason in the last decades the margarine industry has been changing this process towards others such as total hydrogenation, interesterification and fractionation, achieving percentages lower than 1%. But, Why is reducing trans fatty acids so important?

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Margarine vs butter from a nutritional point of view

The main ingredient of margarine is fat. They can be exclusively vegetable oils or with a part of animal origin, known as mixed. The second ingredient in percentage terms is water, creating an emulsion from the mixture of both. As water and fat are immiscible, food additives that act as emulsifiers help in this task. Among them we find mono and diglycerides of fatty acids and lecithin. Salt and potassium sorbate, a preservative, are also added in the manufacture of margarine.

Regarding their contribution of vitamins and minerals, they are enriched in fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D and E and, in the event that the manufacturer substitutes part of the water for skimmed milk, we will also find calcium as a mineral.

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Although there are differences between the commercial brands and the types of margarine marketed (there is 3/4 margarine, light margarine), the nutritional composition of butter and “standard” margarine according to the Spanish Federation of Nutritionists is as follows:

Margarine (100g)

Butter (100g)

Energy (kcal)



Proteins (g)



Total lipids (g)



Saturated (g)



Monounsaturated (g)



Polyunsaturated (g)



Cholesterol (mg / 1000 kcal)








Calcium (8mg), Iron (0.2mg), Magnesium (1mg), Iodine (26 microg), Sodium (800mg), Potassium (7mg),

Calcium (15mg), Iron (0.2mg), Magnesium (2mg), Zinc (0.15mg), Iodine (38 microg), Sodium (5mg), Potassium (16mg), Phosphorus (15mg)


A (900 microg) and E (8mg)

A (828 microg), D (0.76 microg) and E (2mg)

We have made the table with 100 grams, but the usual dose is about 15 grams. As you see, the amount of fat we eat with butter or margarine for breakfast is very similar: around 80%. The differences lie in the origin and quality of it.

With butter we are taking saturated fats from animal origin, which increase bad cholesterol, promote obesity and the possibility of suffering from cardiovascular diseases, according to the WHO. Of course, butter is not the healthiest thing we can put on toast.



With margarine we also take saturated fats, but given their vegetable origin, they are richer in mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids than in saturated ones. The problem is that, unless otherwise stated, margarine contains more trans fat. The way in which it is obtained returns to the fore.

There are two sources of trans fatty acids: natural and industrial. They are naturally present in small amounts in the muscles and milk of ruminants, hence 5% of their consumption comes from the intake of products such as butter, cream, whole milk or fatty meat. But the bulk of trans fats comes from the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils, something we consume in industrial pastries, pre-cooked foods, snacks, fried foods, ice creams or smoothies. In this food group with trans fat of industrial origin includes margarine.

When trans fats pass into the blood, they favor an increase in bad cholesterol to the detriment of good cholesterol, the development of arteriosclerosis, increase triglyceride levels in the blood – which favor cardiovascular diseases -, contribute to diabetes … its negative health effects are greater than those of saturated fatsHence the World Health Organization recommends that while saturated fat intake should represent less than 10% of total calories, trans fat intake should be less than 1%. In fact, the WHO plans to eliminate trans fats from the food industry by 2023.

Source : Engadget