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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Almanac/Like Buttah

Air Date: Week of October 18, 2002

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This week, we have facts about margarine. One hundred forty years ago this week, a French chemist won a prize from Napolean III for inventing a cheap, stable butter substitute.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: American Brass Band, "La marseillaise" NATIONAL ANTHEMS (Delta Music, 1989)]

CURWOOD: In 1862, the Emperor of France was having problems feeding his army. He needed cheap food with a long shelf life that required little refrigeration. So Napoleon III offered a prize to anyone who could create an inexpensive butter substitute. Chemist, Hippolyte Mege-Mouries took up the challenge and concocted the world’s first margarine, with a blend of beef suet, skim milk, and a bit of chopped cow’s utter for taste. It might not sound like something you’d spread on your toast, but oleomargarine was good enough to win the Emperor’s prize. On the other hand, it was the only entry.

Margarine spread to the U.S. in 1873. The dairy industry wasn’t pleased to see margarine luring away butter consumers and lobbied to restrict the product. Some states banned it completely and Congress imposed a heavy tax. But when World War II came along, dairy shortages spiked butter prices and margarine’s day finally came.

Over the years, the animal fat in margarine has been replaced by vegetable oils. The debate continues today as to whether margarine or butter is better for you. Margarine is low in cholesterol, but can contain hydrogenated oils, which also promote heart disease.

The margarine industry is trying to make its product healthier and that might benefit the average American who eats over eight pounds of margarine every year.

And that’s this week’s Living on Earth Almanac.

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