Friday, October 7, 2016

Butter or Margarine? A 147-Year Old Question

By Heather Adkins

Advertisement for Swift’s Premium Oleomargarine, The Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American, Sept. 24, 1916.

In an era fraught with diet fads, fitness programs, and the constant search for the next best way to get healthy, it may come as no surprise that food can sometimes be subject of great debate. A common one is whether butter or margarine is healthier. While this may seem like a modern dispute, the discourse is actually more than a century old.

Description telling how to differentiate between butter and margarine, The Daily American, Nashville, Feb. 28, 1880.

Margarine was invented by French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès. He patented it as “oleomargarine” in 1869. He created the substance for a contest that was the brainchild of Emperor Napoleon III. The French emperor sought a butter alternative that could be used by the armed forces and lower classes. In 1871, a margarine-making process (combining vegetable oils with animal fats) was patented in the United States by Henry W. Bradley.

Impression that oleomargarine is for lower economic classes, The Daily American, Nashville, May 11, 1880.

Impression that oleomargarine is bad for consumers, The Daily American, Nashville, May 8, 1880.

Despite its popularity in Europe and the U.S., public opinion of margarine was polarized in the late 1800s. Margarine was cheaper than butter, meaning it could be considered a money-saver or an indicator of low economic class. It was also more sustainable than butter, which could become rancid in transit between manufacturers and vendors. As a processed substance, margarine was seen by some as complete adulteration of food. The combination of oils and fats rendered a white, lard-like appearance that was unappealing to many. When margarine manufacturers began adding yellow coloring for a more visual appeal, the dairy community started arguing that margarine was unhealthy and unnatural. Negativity towards margarine reversed during World War I when butter was rationed. Food preparedness programs advocated the “patriotic” use of margarine. The cheaper margarine was also invaluable during the Great Depression. After World War II, the use of butter or margarine became more a matter of preference.

Examples and weight conversions of fat alternatives during wartime butter rationing, The Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American, Oct. 12, 1917.

The lower price for margarine, combined with the relative ease of creating a product similar-looking to butter, made the marketplace susceptible to fraud. In one example, F. Giardina, a grocer in Greenville, Mississippi bought 6,000 pounds of “dairy butter” from A.H. Kortrecht & Co, general produce dealers in Memphis. During a routine checkup by a U.S. Revenue inspector, four tubs of what Giardina supposed was butter were seized and revealed to be oleomargarine. The inspector reported Giardina to the Internal Revenue Service for having sold oleomargarine without paying the special tax on margarine required by law. Giardina was forced to take out a license as a retail dealer under threat of arrest. When the fraud became apparent, Giardina claimed financial loss because his customers did not want to buy margarine. He took Kortrecht to court for fraud, eventually getting a large payout for damages and fees.

RG 170 – Supreme Court trial case files, Giardina v. Kortrecht (1896, WT 441), pages 3-4.

The outcry from the dairy and vendor communities prompted federal and state legislation regulating the manufacture and sale of oleomargarine and all other “imitation butter.” The first law in Tennessee appeared in 1895 – Public Act 101 provided “for labeling, stamping or marking oleomargarine, butterine and imitation butter, and [provided] against coloring of the same, and [affixed] the punishment for violation of this Act.” Grand juries were empowered to investigate fraud cases.

The dairy community publicly denounced the production and consuming of oleomargarine. The Daily American, Nashville, Jan. 5, 1878.

In 1931, Tennessee enacted its first large-scale “oleomargarine law” which described regulations in great detail (Public Act 19). Under the law, manufacturers and vendors were required to buy licenses for making and selling margarine. A 10-cent tax stamp was required for sale. The act specifically required that no state, county, municipal or other institution supported by public funds could use margarine, and establishments not supported by public funds were required to display state-regulated signs (that they had to buy) notifying the public that they were using margarine. The act even described the labeling on margarine packaging, so as not to be confused with butter. Labeling was required on top, bottom, and sides of the containers in no less than 20-point type plain Gothic letters, in conspicuous colors contrasting the colors of the containers.

"Special Tax on the for Business of Retail Dealer in Oleomargarine," RG 170 – Supreme Court trial case files, Giardina v. Kortrecht, (1896, WT 441)

The law was amended in 1941 (Public Act 6) to provide for inclusion of vitamins and nutritional content in margarine and restrict the comparison of margarine and butter in advertisements. One revision repealed previous provisions restricting the coloring of margarine, allowing that coloring “shall be held to be yellow in color when it has a tint or shade containing more than 1.6 degrees of yellow, or of yellow and red collectively, but with an excess of yellow over red, measured in the term of Lovibon tintometer scale or equivalent.” Acts since then have continued to adjust nutritional content, fees and other regulations.

Newspapers frequently reported the decisions made by the General Assembly to control the manufacture and sale of margarine. The Daily American, Nashville, March 27, 1883.

The Tennessee General Assembly continues to influence food production and packaging today. Recently, bills have come before the legislature proposing the regulation of plants and seeds sold in Tennessee. Even the labeling of Tennessee honey has become standardized, with a push to require labeling for “100% pure honey” or “not pure honey.” Bills such as these help regulate what is sold to the public, deter fraud and promote honesty and integrity in the food industry.

Advertisement for Swift’s Premium Oleomargarine, The Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American, March 8, 1918.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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