Is margarine vegan? Also, what is margarine anyway? You might be surprised to learn that it isn’t just butter with a fancier name.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know if this salty spread is vegan or not: there’s a bit of confusion about its plant-based status. The answer to this question actually involves a bit more than a “yes” or “no” answer.
So, here I am to settle the great margarine debate.
What is margarine?
Before we can discuss whether margarine is or isn’t vegan, it’s probably helpful to know what margarine is in the first place.
Margarine was originally created in France in the year 1869. Napoleon wanted to make a cheaper alternative to butter to feed his army and the extensive amount of starving lower class people in France at that time. Unsurprisingly, the oppressed people of France weren’t impressed with this, but margarine itself lived on. (1)
Essentially, margarine is solidified oil or fat combined with water (or milk) and salt. While it was originally made with beef fat, now it’s made almost solely with vegetable oils. These oils can be extracted from anything, including, but not limited to:
- Sunflower seeds
Margarine made its way over to the U.S. in the late 1800s, which made dairy farmers very upset. They lobbied against margarine because it was cutting into their sales and got the government to create the Margarine Act of 1886, which placed a huge tax on margarine products. (2)
There was even a time that law required margarine to be dyed pink so consumers would know it wasn’t “real” butter and thus deter them from buying it. (In my opinion, a pink condiment spread sounds pretty cool, but I might be the exception).
Despite the trials and obstacles facing margarine in its early days, its popularity for affordable cooking and baking skyrocketed in the 1900s, and it remains popular today (even though most people don’t know what margarine is exactly).
How is margarine made?
The process of how margarine is made is comprised of seven steps:
Oil is extracted via cold-pressing or with use of solvents, usually hexane. FYI, hexane is also used in cleaning products and paint thinners. It can cause dizziness, nausea, and headaches. (3)
This initial oil is dubbed “crude oil” and it can often contain impurities, toxins, and metals. It’s also usually foul-smelling and a murky grey color (appetizing!).
While hydrogenation isn’t always performed to make margarine, it’s pretty common. It involves blasting hydrogen gas into a high pressure chamber to force the fatty oil compounds into a solid state at room temperature.
This produces trans fats as a by-product, which have been strongly linked to heart disease, high “bad” cholesterol, and obesity. (4)
Next, these oils are mixed with a number of other types of oil and fat to get the proper consistency.
This part of the process involves mixing the fat/oil created in previous steps with either water or milk. Sometimes, whey is added as well. Salt, vitamins, and stabilizers are also mixed in at this point, before food dyes and chemicals are added in to color the margarine yellow.
This stage is necessary to kill off toxins and microorganisms, which is done using high temperatures.
After all that, the final product will be solidified into the margarine we know and (sometimes) love. This is done by chilling it at a specific temperature before packaging it up and shipping it off to your local supermarket.
You can see the entire process in this short video:
So, is margarine vegan?
As with many products, I’m going to answer this question in a vague “it depends” kind of fashion. You might have noticed that during the “mixing” stage of production, certain margarines will add in whey or milk. This would, of course, make the margarine not vegan.
However, many brands choose to use water instead of milk.
So, since there’s no overarching answer, you should be sure to check the ingredients on each container of margarine you buy to check whether it’s vegan or not. Thankfully, many brands now go out of there way to specify that their margarine is vegan-friendly, so things have gotten a whole lot easier.
Non-vegan ingredients to look out for
There are a few common ingredients that would make a margarine unsuitable for vegans, these include:
Whey is a milk product that’s leftover after the cow juice is curdled and strained. Whey is often isolated and used as a protein supplement, but it’s also sometimes added to margarine, bread, cereal, and more.
Lactose is a sugar found in dairy products. Many brands add lactose to margarine in order to give it a more “authentic” buttery taste.
Most margarines these days are made with vegetable oil, but, you never know. Margarine was originally made with cow fat, which would make it definitely non-vegan, so check the packaging!
Now, this one might seem a little counterintuitive. Palm oil comes from a plant, so why would palm oil make a butter substitute unsuitable for a vegan?
Some people consider palm oil to be a non-vegan product even though it’s plant based. The production of palm oil often involves massive deforestation of the rainforest. (5)
This not only destroys some of the world’s most natural and beautiful rainforests, but it also leads to death and habitat loss for many of the animals who live there.
Therefore, many plant-based practitioners consider this ingredient to be a non-vegan product because of the negative effects palm oil production has on numerous forms of wildlife.
Is margarine healthy?
While the original question was “is margarine vegan?”, perhaps a more important question is whether we should be eating margarine at all – is margarine healthy?
The short answer: No.
Margarine is 80% fat in the form of oil. Some brands of margarine contain toxic trans fats that can lead to heart disease and weight gain and it can also be made with harmful chemicals like hexane. There are much healthier vegan fat sources, like avocados, nut butters (made in a nut blender, and flaxseeds.
But, unless you’re eating it by the tub or baking particularly margarine-filled cakes or cookies, many people (even self proclaimed clean eaters) find that vegan margarine and butter substitutes are OK in moderation.
After all, who doesn’t like a little spread of margarine and jam on some morning toast? Or a little dollop on a baked potato?
Is margarine vegan? Sometimes. Is margarine the healthiest thing you could be eating? No. Is it OK to have in moderation once in a while? Sure.
If you’re looking for the best vegan margarine, personally I love Earth Balance, but I’m open to others if you have any suggestions.
So, is margarine a staple in your refrigerator? Which vegan margarines are best in your opinion? Let me know in the comments!
About The Author:
Lisa Williams is a committed vegan, passionate animal welfare advocate, and keen follower of too many v-friendly food blogs to mention. She started happyhappyvegan.com back in 2016 because she felt there was a need for more straightforward information on plant-based living.
Back then, too many sites seem to either concentrate solely on recipes or be too intimidating or inaccessible for the v-curious, and she wanted to change that. The landscape is certainly a whole lot different now!
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- Ethan Trex | The Surprisingly Interesting History of Margarine | https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/25638/surprisingly-interesting-history-margarine
- Robert C. Kennedy | Knock–They Might Open and Relieve You | https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/0807.html
- PubChem | Hexane | https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/hexane#section=Top
- Mohammad Perwaiz Iqbal | Trans fatty acids – A risk factor for cardiovascular disease | https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3955571/
- Tom Levitt and Heriberto Araujo | The Amazon’s new danger: Brazil sets sights on palm oil | https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jun/29/brazil-palm-oil-amazon-rainforest-deforestation-temer-farming-para-cerrado