Most people know about both butter and margarine. Many people think that they are interchangeable, basically the same thing with the same nutrients, and that margarine is healthier than butter. These misconceptions are not coincidental; margarine has long been marketed as a butter substitute, so it’s easy to see why people would think of it that way. However, the truth is a little more complicated. It has to do with the history of margarine, along with its original purpose, which, believe it or not, had nothing to do with butter. So where did margarine come from, and how did it end up hanging out with butter?
Butter is a dairy product. It is made from milk and cream. Butter usually comes from cows, but sometimes other domesticated animals are used as well. Churning creates two butter products: buttermilk, which is the liquid portion, and butterfat. It is a time-consuming but straightforward process, easy enough to complete at home. Generally, butter that is sold commercially contains at least 80% butterfat, while the remainder is a combination of milk proteins and water. Back when nutrition was less thoroughly understood, it was thought, or at least marketed, that butter was very unhealthy for the body, particularly in high doses.
They may look quite similar, but margarine is a whole other animal (pun intended). Instead of dairy products, margarine is mostly oil; additionally, it has some water, some salt, and several additional ingredients. These ingredients, among other things, give margarine the general appearance and the flavor of butter. Yes, that’s right: margarine is not naturally yellow. While margarine must also have the 80% fat level, another key difference is that this requirement can be circumvented if the margarine is called a “spread.” In case the thought occurred to you to make it at home, margarine is much more chemically complex than butter.