Thursday, May 31, 2012

In defense of margarine

Posted By on 05.31.12 at 06:51 AM

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In Kitchen Confidential (the book people who don't really know that much about food refer to when they try to act like they know a lot about food, like myself), Anthony Bourdain writes about butter:

"In a professional kitchen, we sauté in a mixture of butter and oil for that nice brown, caramelised colour, and we finish nearly every sauce with it (we call this monter au beurre); that's why my sauce tastes creamier and mellower than yours. Margarine? That's not food. I Can't Believe It's Not Butter? I can."

Speak for yourself, Tony! Growing up in my house, our go-to spread was margarine. Like many of the "rules" my parents implemented, being kosher was a half-assed endeavor. No shellfish in the house, unless it's shrimp. All meat in the house had to be blessed by a rabbi; but once we left, my family consumed the most blasphemous chickens. And we couldn't butter our bread, because we frequently ate bread with meat, and mixing meat and milk was not kosher. Therefore, we relied on margarine. At first, we went with Country Crock, and that's what I used for the first 15 years of my life. But when it took my mom that long to discover that Country Crock actually also contains some butter, it was out with the crock and in with strictly kosher margarine. At my parents' house, it's still there.

Ah, margarine. You know what, Tony? I can also believe it's not butter! Because it might actually be better than butter. Ever tried spreading margarine across a piece of challah bread? Pretty good! And this might make some people widen their eyes, but I always try to spread a pan with margarine when I make scrambled eggs. It creates a spongier, tougher consistency than eggs prepared in a buttered pan, and doesn't make the egg taste quite as rich. That might not sound natural, but I'll take my fluffy egg pillows over runny, snotty yolk.

But in doing a little research on margarine, I also discovered that it has a strange and fascinating history. In this Mental Floss article from a few years back, writer Ethan Trex outlines margarine's origins:

If you enjoy margarine, tip your cap to Emperor Napoleon III. Napoleon III saw that both his poorer subjects and his navy would benefit from having easy access to a cheap butter substitute, so he offered a prize for anyone who could create an adequate replacement.

Enter French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès. In 1869, Mège-Mouriès perfected and patented a process for churning beef tallow with milk to create an acceptable butter substitute, thereby winning the Emperor’s prize. . .

Despite Napoleon III’s high hopes for Mège-Mouriès’ product, which the scientist had dubbed “oleomargarine,” the market didn’t really take off. In 1871, Mège-Mouriès showed his process to a Dutch company that improved on his methods and helped build an international market for margarine. The Dutch entrepreneurs realized that if margarine were going to become a substitute for butter, it needed to look like butter, so they began dyeing margarine, which is naturally white, a buttery yellow.

Mège-Mouriès didn’t get a princely sum for his invention; he actually died a pauper in 1880. The Dutch company that improved upon his recipe did pretty well for itself, though. The company, Jurgens, eventually became a world-renowned maker of margarines and soaps and later became a part of Unilever.

There's more, and more recent, dispatches from the bizarre backstory of margarine.

In 2008 there was a shortage of cottonseed oil, one of the main ingredients in margarine. Additionally, the private company that made kosher-for-Passover margarine for Manischewitz suddenly decided to get out of the kosher-for-Passover margarine making business. This led to only one factory making kosher-for-Passover margarine, which caused a shortage. This "crisis," written about by Anne Zimmerman in the Wall Street Journal, actually has a Wikipedia entry.

According to this NPR Morning Edition story from September, yellow-dyed margarine, which tries to disguise the margarine-ness of margarine, was banned in Wisconsin over a century ago. This led to decades of margarine smuggling until the law was repealed in 1967. Yet margarine is still restricted in public places like restaurants and prisons unless specifically requested, even though state lawmakers are trying to overturn those restrictions.

Despite all this history, the most common query about margarine on the Internet regards health: Which is better for you, margarine or butter? Martha Grogan, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic, has the skinny:

Margarine is made from vegetable oils, so it contains no cholesterol. Margarine is also higher in "good" fats — polyunsaturated and monounsaturated — than butter is. These types of fat help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad," cholesterol, when substituted for saturated fat. Butter, on the other hand, is made from animal fat, so it contains cholesterol and high levels of saturated fat.

But not all margarines are created equal — and some may even be worse than butter. In general, the more solid the margarine, the more trans fat it contains — so stick margarines usually have more trans fat than do tub margarines. Like saturated fat, trans fat increases blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. In addition, trans fat can lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol levels. Spreads such as Benecol and Promise Activ are fortified with plant stanols and sterols, which can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels.

So there you go: Margarine can be healthier, but it depends on the margarine you use. Knowing that, I feel better about my parents forcing us to use margarine as kids, since it likely made us healthier. Then again, hot dog and french fry Thursdays may have negated any of the salubrious effects.

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