Margarine: A Counterfeit Food

By Kenneth de Courcy

Summary: This reprint of a 1957 article on margarine production epitomizes two fundamentally opposed philosophies of food production that emerged from the Industrial Revolution. On the one hand, large-scale manufacturers strove to deliver food to consumers at the lowest cost possible, using novel chemical and thermal methods to preserve and manipulate foodstuffs regardless of the effect on the foods’ nutritional quality. (Indeed, industrial food processing was the reason the vitamins were discovered in the first place, the inadvertent removal of the then-unknown nutrients leading to mysterious epidemics across the globe.) Nutritionists, on the other hand, decried industrial adulteration of the food supply, citing copious evidence that eating foods in as natural a state as possible is critical for the growth, upkeep, and immunity of the human body. In this article the author, an advocate of commercial food manufacturing, sells margarine as a sort of modern super food, with a nutritional value “as high as that of butter” simply because the two contain the same amount of fat and calories per ounce. Such sophistry is what allowed food manufacturers to run roughshod over America’s food supply, as noted by the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research, which reprinted the article so its audience could see margarine precisely for what it is—a “counterfeit food” made from “refined, rancid, and otherwise unfit food sources.” From World Science Review, 1957. Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research reprint 106.

[The following is a transcription of the original Archives document. To view or download the original document, click here.]

Margarine: A Counterfeit Food

[Note from the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research:]

The following article has been reprinted for the purpose of showing the inadequacies of margarine as a helpful food product, and that it is made from refined, rancid, and otherwise unfit food sources. [Margarine is] typical counterfeit food—in which its synthetic and counterfeit nature has been successfully concealed.


Margarine was invented in 1867 by a French scientist named Mege-Mouries, who had been asked by Emperor Napoleon III to produce an artificial butter, costing less and keeping better [than real butter], with which to feed his armies. It was a very different product from the one we know today.

Mege-Mouries produced a combination of beef fat, milk, and water that had a remote resemblance to butter. He called it margarine, from the Greek word margarites, meaning “pearl-like,” after the appearance of his mixture. (Hence the word margarine should be pronounced with a hard “g,” as in Margaret, which, incidentally, has the same derivation.)

[Photo of industrial vats, with caption:] General view of milk processing vessels in the dairy. Milk is used to give margarine its taste and flavor.

Dutch Rivalry

It was left to two merchants in the small Dutch village of Oss to develop the process on a commercial basis. The beginning of the nineteenth century saw the English Industrial Revolution. The population was growing; there were more people to feed and yet fewer people to work on the land. English importers were crying out for more butter, but the Continent could not meet the demand.

In the meantime news of the French discovery had reached two Dutch families, the Van den Berghs and the Jurgens, who saw the opportunity of supplying a butter alternative. They obtained the patents for the new margarine and in a short time established thriving margarine factories. But their problems were not yet ended. The demand for margarine grew month by month, and there was soon an acute shortage of the animal fats that at that time provided the basis for margarine.


Their problem was solved by the invention of a process called hydrogenation, which, in brief, could change liquid vegetable oils into hard fats and result in a more palatable product. The discovery led to the development of hitherto untouched and limitless resources of vegetable oils, particularly in Africa.

At the outbreak of the 1914–18 war, the British government invited the Jurgens to build a factory at Purfleet, and at the same time [they invited] the Van den Berghs to build a factory in Fulham. During and after the war, the popularity of margarine spread, and the two families—no longer content with simply making margarine—entered the wholesale and retail markets. Their ventures prospered, but competition became uneconomical, and in 1927 the two families decided to merge, thus laying the foundation of the company as it is today.

One major hurdle still remained if margarine was to compete on equal terms with butter: how to introduce into margarine the essential A and D vitamins and ensure their lasting in beneficial quantities. The complicated scientific problem of vitaminization was finally solved in 1927 at the Bromborough factory.

What Is Margarine?

What is margarine? Essentially it is a blend of natural vegetable oils and milk, fortified with vitamins. From India, China, the Belgian Congo, Brazil, the USA, Argentina, the Philippines, Malaya, Nigeria, Indonesia, and the Cameroons come the raw materials of margarine—one of Britain’s largest-selling foodstuffs.

The total consumption of edible oils and fats in 1956 in Great Britain was 1.2 million tons. Of this figure 393,000 tons were margarine, compared with 347,000 tons of butter. Margarine’s nutritional value [in terms of fat and calorie content] is as high as that of butter, as the following figures—published by the Ministry of Food on February 27, 1954—show:

Butter Margarine
Fat per ounce 23.4 g 24.2 g
Calories per ounce 211 218
Margarine also contains the sunshine vitamins [sic] A and D. The vitamin A content is equivalent to, and the vitamin D content approximately twice that of, good quality summer butter. During the winter, lack of sunshine tends to cut down the vitamins, particularly D, produced by the cow. The legal maximum of water content for both margarine and butter is 16 percent.

Margarine Manufacture

There are thirty-two manufacturers of margarine in Great Britain. The two largest factories are the Stork Margarine Works at Purfleet, Essex, and at Bromborough, Cheshire.

Refining the Oils

The refining process is of extreme importance in making high-quality margarine, since it removes all traces of impurities, taste, and color, leaving a pure, cleansed, “neutral” oil. The oils arrive at the factories by sea, rail, and road tankers. The oils used are mainly vegetable. They include:

Groundnut (Peanut)
Palm kernel
Palm oil
Whale oil

There are three main stages in the refining operations:

  1. Neutralization
  2. Bleaching and filtering
  3. Deodorization
[Photo of factory floor and equipment, with caption:] General view of the edible oils factory at the Margarine Works, Cheshire.

1. Neutralization

In the first stages of the neutralization process, the oils are treated with alkali, which changes the fatty acid present into a water-soluble solution.

When this mixture is allowed to stand under controlled temperature conditions, the heavier aqueous solution settles to the bottom of the neutralizing vessel, leaving the clear oil above.

The clear oil is repeatedly washed with dilute alkali to remove traces of acid, and finally [it is washed] with clean water. It is then dried—a process performed under vacuum.

2. Bleaching and Filtering

This second refining process bleaches the oil, removing coloring matter and other trace impurities.

Bleaching earth absorbs the pigments and other impurities, and the oil is separated from the earth in a filter press, which retains everything but the clear, colorless oil, which is then ready for the next stage of refinement.

3. Deodorization

This process removes the final traces of tastes and odors from the oil. It is carried out by steam distillation under vacuum, in a vessel that looks like a large pressure cooker.

The passage of steam through the oil at high temperatures under vacuum permits the removal of the last impurities that impart taste and odor to the oil. At the end of…

[Page 30 of reprint omitted. Resuming with page 31:]

…a scraper knife. It is then allowed to stand in containers to mature for a period, during which time it regains room temperature and recovers from the shock of rapid cooling.

The margarine is then ready for kneading. It is passed through Multiplex rollers—machines that consist of three pairs of granite rollers closely spaced, one of each pair of rollers rotating at twice the speed of the other. These rollers consolidate the flakes. This mixture is then allowed a further resting period before the final blending. This consists of “working” the margarine—until the desired creamy texture and right spreading consistency are obtained—by blenders working under vacuum. The margarine, after a further resting period, is then ready for packing.

[Photo of man working machines in factory, with caption:] View of the compounding unit at the Margarine Works, Essex.

The Votator Method

The Votator compresses into a matter of seconds processes that previously took many hours. The margarine is completely untouched by hand and protected from the outside atmosphere.

Each Votator consists of two units, “A” and “B.” Unit A is made up of three cooling and emulsifying cylinders. When the emulsion of fats and milk leaves the premixing vessel, it enters unit A at a controlled temperature. Each cylinder is 46 inches by 4 inches in diameter and jacketed for cooling by liquid ammonia. Inside each a shaft carries two rows of scraper blades, which bear on the inner surface of the cylinder. In this way the emulsion is quickly chilled and plasticized. Unit B allows the mixture to solidify and crystallize and gives the desired texture to the finished product.

Ingenious packing machines automatically mold and wrap the margarine in half-pound packets, which leave the machines at the rate of about ninety per minute. The packets are automatically packed into fiberboard containers, each of which holds twenty-four or forty-eight packets. These are sealed automatically, ready for dispatch.

Quality Control

At every stage in the manufacture of margarine, samples are taken and analyzed. This laboratory control ensures that the balance is correct to the finest degree. At the end of the production line, the finished product is examined, and the moisture content checked.

Not only the product itself and all the ingredients used in its manufacture but even the atmosphere of the buildings in which the margarine is made are subject to constant bacteriological scrutiny. Scrupulous hygiene is essential, and great attention is paid to detail so as to ensure that both the equipment used and the staff conform to the highest standards of cleanliness.

The rising standards of living, not only in Britain but in other well-developed countries, coupled with the need of raising this standard in the undeveloped countries of the world are likely to make the world’s standards of nutrition more and more dependent on the margarine industry.

By Kenneth de Courcy. Reprinted from World Science Review, December 1957, by the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research.

[Prefatory content of article—information on World Science Review and its sister publications:]

Intelligence Digest – The Weekly Review – World Science Review. Editorial and Executive Offices: Alderbourne Manor, Gerrards Cross, Bucks. Telephone: Fulmer (Bucks) 33. Intelligence Digest: Service is represented in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland by the Trans-Africa News Service, 5, Sunnyside Mansions, Jameson Avenue, Salisbury, S. Rhodesia, P.O. Box 1567, Salisbury. Editor and Publisher of the Intelligence Digest Service: Kenneth de Courcy. Managing Editor: John de Courcy. Associate Editor, Science: James Lawrie.

Reprint No. 106
Price – 10 cents
Reprinted by Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research
Milwaukee 1, Wisconsin

Note: Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research is a nonprofit, public-service institution, chartered to investigate and disseminate nutritional information. The attached publication is not literature or labeling for any product, nor shall it be employed as such by anyone. In accordance with the right of freedom of the press guaranteed to the Foundation by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the attached publication is issued and distributed for informational purposes.

Patrick Earvolino, CN

Patrick Earvolino is a Certified Nutritionist and Special Projects Editor for Selene River Press, Inc.

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