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History of Butter Substitute Oleo or Margarine Spread color was regulated in Minnesota

Breakfast, bread, margarine and honey

Breakfast, bread, margarine and honey


Margarine, oleomargarine or just plain oleo is a butter substitute and the most popular of them In fact it might be more popular than butter now.

I remember in high school that it was controversial. I lived in Minnesota, which is a dairy state so, it has a vested interest in people using butter. One of my classmates in speech class gave a talk about the merits of butter over margarine. I don’t remember what he said but it had something to do with supporting  farmers. I don’t believe he specified dairy farmers. After all, it seems that margarine too is made from agricultural products. However, Minnesota is a dairy state.

Although you could buy margarine in Minnesota and other states, you couldn’t buy it with yellow color. In other words, the manufacture could not add food color to the margarine to make it look more like butter. Another irony, however, is that butter often had color added to it, I understand, because it often looks pale in its natural state.

Probably none of this would have meant much to me except that my mother’s doctor told her to avoid things like butter because of her health. So we started buying margarine that came with little capsules of food color. One broke the capsule and kneaded the soft plastic container to spread the coloring.  I have pretty much used margarine ever since although I would by butter  if it were on sale. However,I don’t really use enough of either to have much impact on my health.



Origins of Oleomargarine

The proper term is oleomargarine since margarine is a generic term for a number of butter substitutes. Michel Eugene Chevreul discovered margaric acid in 1813.At the time scientists considered margaric acid as one of three fatty acids forming animal fats if combined together. In the 1850’s Wilhelm Heinrich Heintz, a German structural scientist, analyzed margaric acid as simply a combination of stearic acid and palmitic acid, which was unknown previously.

French Emperor, Louis Napoleon II offered a prize for a butter substitute that was suitable for the armed forces and lower classes. Oleomargarine was the result of efforts by French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries who patented the concept in 1869 and expanded his manufacturing operation he didn’t have much commercial success . He sold the patent to a Dutch company, which is now part of Unilever.

Full size gingerbread house at Stockholm Central Train Station.

Full size gingerbread house at Stockholm Central Train Station.

Banning Margarine


Margarine was banned in Canada from 1886 to 1948. The ban was lifted during dairy shortages from 1917 until 1923. Newfoundland produced margarine that used whale, seal, and fish oil by the Newfoundland Butte Company. It was smuggled into Canada end sold for half the price that butter sold for. In 1948 the Supreme Court of Canada lifted the ban on margarine.

The courts did, in 1950, give the provinces the right to regulate margarine. The restrictions varied when it came to coloring. In some places it had to be bright yellow or orange and colorless other places.  Mostly by 1980’s the restrictions were mostly gone although you couldn’t legally buy colored margarine in Ontario until 1995. Quebec didn’t legalize colored margarine until 2008.

REMA Margerine 1000

REMA Margerine 1000

In the United States laws were passed as early as 1877 to put restrictions on sale and labeling of margarine. In the 1880’s a federal tax of two cents a pound was levied plus the requirement of a license to sell it. States required labeling and color bans in New York and New Jersey, both dairy states. Some states went so far as to have laws to require an unappetizing color be added to the margarine, but the Supreme Court struck it down.

At the start of the 20th century 80% of Americans could not buy colored margarine and a hefty tax was levied on it where it was sold. Colored margarine was bootlegged. Also, manufacturers began to supply colored capsules so consumers could knead yellow color into the packet. Restrictions in 1902 on colored margarine reduced U.S. consumption of from 120 million pounds to 48 million. A dozen years later  it became more popular than ever.

World War I resulted in an increase in margarine consumption, as dairy products became scarce. Margarine and dairy lobbies went on. The Great depression in the U.S. brought more pro butter regulations but the Second World War brought back the demand for margarine. The margarine lobby gained power after the war and gradually the restrictions were overcome. Minnesota and Wisconsin, both dairy states, were most recent in lifting restrictions.


Facts about spreads

  • Both butter and margarine are emulsions of water-in-fat with tiny droplets of water dispersed uniformly through throughout a fat phase that is in a stable crystalline form.
  • Definition of margarine came from the legal definition of butter as both contained a minimum of 165 Water and a minimum fat content of 80%. It was adopted by all major producers and became the industry standard.
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  • Beef fat was the main raw material for margarine. When the beef fat became harder to obtain vegetable hydrogenation was developed. Between 1900 and 1920 oleo was produced from a combination of animal fat and vegetable oils. By 1950 manufacturer had changed over to vegetable fats.
  • Two lower fat blends in Scandinavia confused the issue what could be called” margarine” and led to use of the term” spread.” In 1978 Krona an 80% blend made of churning a blend of dairy cream and vegetable oils was introduced in Europe, and in 1982, a cream and vegetable oil blend called Clover

Was introduced in the United Kingdom. "I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter" was introduced in the United States in 1986 and the United Kingdom and Canada in


·      Kosher non-dairy margarines are available for those who follow Jewish dietary laws.

Margarine seems to be popular now because it is cheaper than butter and lower in fats. If one is concerned about unsaturated, omega-3 acids, Omega 6 acids, or trans fat they should check the label, as these are better for those concerned about their cholesterol.

Note: I used the Wikipdedia article on Margarine as the primary resource for this article.


Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on September 12, 2014:

Thanks for commenting, PegCole. The butter vs margarine, I'm sure, largely affected dairy states like Minnesota and Wisconsin. Margarine is also promted for less fat affecting certain health problems.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on September 12, 2014:

I never knew that margarine had been banned and was originally colorless. We grew up using it but I prefer butter to use in my cakes and baked goods.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on July 06, 2014:

Hi Jaye. Many years ago I took an interest in gardening and did a lot of reading on the subject. The organic vs other gardening became academic because I didn't manage any successful crops. I did grow some reasonably good tomatoes but ended up renting for a number of years. I tried communiy gardens but they lacked water. I'll leave it to younger people now. (one of my nieces is married to a farmer who raises crops organically.)

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on July 06, 2014:

For health reasons, I only use an occasional 'smidgen' of butter to add its delectable taste to certain veggies. Mostly, I use olive oil in place of either butter or oleo for its healthier fat, and I dont' use a lot of it. The average person uses too much of any fat, when only a small amount will impart the same flavor.

I understand your need for caution around dairy farmers. I have to watch what I say when I visit the local farmers market and turn down the pesticide-ridden produce of non-organic farmers while buying only from the very few organic farmers represented. The produce farmers in my area (central Mississippi) are slow to embrace organic methods ("The climate's too hot and humid! We have too many bugs! We have to use pesticides to have a crop!"). There are, fortunately, a few younger people who both understand the need for sustainibility of the land and health for consumers.


Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on July 06, 2014:

I appreciate your commenting, Jaye. Actually we still use Oleo. I also still live in a dairy state but that is just coincidence. I did learn when I was young not to talk ablut Oleo around farmers.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on July 05, 2014:

I am old enough to remember my mom adding color to the margarine (that we referred to back then as 'oleo') and stirring it to blend. We ate it instead of butter when I was growing up, so I didn't realize that the taste of butter was/is superior until I was an adult.

Very good hub chock full of intriguing information. Voted Up/Interesting


Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on December 05, 2011:

RV Daniels, thanks for reading my article on Oleo.It was sort of something in my age group grew up with. Probably seems strange to others.

RVDaniels from Athens, GA on December 05, 2011:

Thanks for a truly interesting read. I'm a real history fan and this was an article that I truly enjoyed.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on March 01, 2011:

KoffeeKlatch Gals

They didn't want it to look like butter because they didn't want the competition. I personally object to government favoring one industry over another.

Peggy W

Minnesota also put restrictions on oleo. Since Minnesota farming is not quite as much dependent on dairy as Wisconsin seems to be I don't think we took it quite as seriously. Or maybe because I lived in the city I was abstracted from it.

speaking of taking the state seriously. Now that my son lives on the border of Minnesota his wife told us that people around Hudson consider themselves to be Minnesotans.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 01, 2011:

Just look at a Wisconsin license plate...The Dairy State. Yes...they were strict about not allowing colored margarine so as to promote their dairy industry.

Susan Hazelton from Northern New York on March 01, 2011:

I find it interesting that they went to all the trouble to ban margarine with a little color in it. Wonderful history.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on March 01, 2011:

Thank you for a complimentary comment. I try to make my hubs interesting and informative.

Emma from Houston TX on March 01, 2011:

Great hub from a great lecturer.I love that,its really cute and educative.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 28, 2011:

Although Minnesota is a dairy state Wisconsin appears to be even more so.As such I suspect that the rules were even tighter in Wisconsin.Me being a city boy never quite understood what all the fuss was about.Thanks for commenting and voting.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 28, 2011:

I remember those days well when one could not purchase colored margarine in Wisconsin. My parents also did some bootlegging! Haha! Excellent in depth article about oleo or margarine. Voted up and useful.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 28, 2011:

I suppose it seems strange now, but those of us who grew up right after WWII I guess were used to a lot of regulations on things.Thanks for commenting.

QudsiaP1 on February 28, 2011:

I never knew that margarine was ever banned, thanks for sharing. :)

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 27, 2011:

Glad you found it interesting.Probably the coloring would not hurt one unless they ate a lot of margarine, but the dirty secret is that butter was or maybe still has added color.Thanks for commenting.

Wealthmadehealthy from Somewhere in the Lone Star State on February 27, 2011:

This was an extremely interesting read. I had no idea that at one time (being as I am only in my 50's) that a capsule was used to change the color. This is an amazement to me as a lot of food colorings now have been shown to be harmful. I believe one or two of the yellows are in with this mix. Great hub, and I used to live "across the way" from a dairy farm in MN. Thanks for all this good information!!

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 27, 2011:

Thanks for commenting. It wasn't my intent to persuade anyone one way or the other. Actually I don't use a lot of either one myself.

Barbara from Stepping past clutter on February 27, 2011:

da, I have not made the transition from butter, and would not allow my children to eat margarine where I had control of the matter, lol. I guess I was brainwashed in Minnesota. Though there is press out there that claims, even now, the health benefits of butter over margarine. If I did not read those articles, I might be persuaded by this hub to switch over. You write a very clear and concise hub on the subject! Great work.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 26, 2011:

Oleomargerine is just the original name. Originally margerine was a generic name for any kind of spread.Eventually it became,I believe a trade name. So really now they are the same thing.Thanks for commenting.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on February 26, 2011:

Nice hub, my friend. I really enjoy the history of this margarine. I often use margarine to make a fried rice and other food. But, oleomargarine is new for me. Thanks for sharing. Love and peace,


Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 26, 2011:

Margarine is so common now it is hard to believe it was so controversial.Thanks for commenting.

rupex on February 26, 2011:

Great sharing about oleo. I using margarine to cook burger at my hawker stall.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 26, 2011:


Thanks for commenting. I suppose butter has tried to improve from the standpoint of fats. the main reason oleo became popular in the past was the health factor.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 26, 2011:


I appreciate your comment and compliment about my research.

Tamarajo on February 26, 2011:

boot legged margarine.. who knew?

interesting facts on margarine. I prefer butter and think it is healthier than margarine. been making some switches to olive oil too an even more healthier alternative.

Seakay from Florida on February 26, 2011:

Wow, who would have thought there was this much information available on Oleo and Margarine! Great read, dahoglund. The research is great!

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 26, 2011:

I think whenever the government regulates something that most people want there is going to be bootlegging.Banning color was a way to try to control competition which is a dubious goal.Thanks for commenting.

Dusty Snoke from Chattanooga, TN on February 25, 2011:

absolutely love this. I never thought about margarine in any color being banned or against the law. I must admit I found the bootlegging of margarine very funny.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 25, 2011:

Just Ask Susan,

My wife pretty much insists on the soft margarine.Thanks for commenting.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 25, 2011:

Ginn Navarre

I do believe we thought it fun. Thanks for commenting.

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on February 25, 2011:

Very interesting. I had forgotten all about margarine and all the bans and coloring laws until reading this. I mainly use margarine due to the cost but still prefer butter any day.

Ginn Navarre on February 25, 2011:

Very interesting. It was during War II,in Tempe Arizona I was permitted by my grandmother to have the important job of breaking that little capsule in the margine bag and I was facinated how it turned into "yellow butter."

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 25, 2011:

Actually i find it strange that so many laws were made to protect special interest rather than the good of the people. Thanks for commenting.

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on February 25, 2011:

I grew up in Iowa where colored margarine was also banned, so I too remember the little red colored capsule that turned the white oleo yellow.

Iowa legalized colored margarine before Minnesota, so when I went to visit my aunt in Minneapolis, I filled my trunk with packages of pre-colored stick margarine which I then sold to my aunt and her neighbors. I made enough money to pay my gas.

I was a teenage bootlegger! :-)

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