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The discovery of margarine was motivated in the half 19th century by the need to find a cheap source of dietary fats for the French workers in a period of great increase in the population and shortage of butter. Around 1850, beef tallow and pork fats accounted for about half of the dietary supply of lipids but this source was vitamin-poor, poorly digestible and not spreadable. To counteract the shortage of dairy fats and their poor quality which could raise some difficulties not only in the population but also in the military troops, the French government, under the rule of Napoleon III, decided in 1866, during the international exhibition in Paris, to launch a competition for the research of a new cheap dietary fat source.

A French chemist, Hippolyte Mège Mouriès (1817-1880), well known for several inventions in the field of food processing, was selected and the government gave him the private imperial farm of the "Faisanderie" in Vincennes to do his research on the processing of a butter-like fat. His method was based on the mechanical mixing of skimmed milk with an oil, obtained from beef tallow under pressure at 30-40°C. The patent was registered in Paris on 15 July 1869 (BF 86480). Mège named his new fat "oléo-margarine".

The margarine production was developping rapidly all over the world. After the first selling of the margarine patent to Jurgens factory in Netherlands in 1871, its production was launched in Germany (1872), Austria (1873), Norway (1876), Sweden and Danmark (1884), England (1889), United States (1874) and Russia (1930).

The world production of margarine was about 100,000 tons in 1875, 400,000 in 1900, 1 million tons in 1925, 2.1 million in 1950, 4.1 million in 1960, 5.5 million in 1970, 7.4 million in 1980, and 9.1 million in 1990.
In 2008, according to the information of IMACE Member Associations, the total of margarine and fat spreads production in the EU amounted to 1.8 MT. The five biggest producing countries are Germany with 0.36 MT, the Netherlands and Belgium with 0.29 MT, United Kingdom with 0.27 MT and Poland with 0.14 MT). Other big producers in the world are the United States (0.61 MT), Brazil (0.5 MT), Turkey and Japan (0.24 MT).

Around 1875, the production of the original margarine could not increase any more owing to a shortage of animal fats. Thus, vegetal fats and oils began to be mixed with beef tallow, coconut being the main source of purified fats. Despite these new vegetal sources, the margarine production reached a plateau until the use of a new technical process, fatty acid hydrogenation. This chemical reaction invented by the French chemist P. Sabatier et al in 1901 was applied one year later to fatty acids by the German chemist W. Normann. It must be noticed that Sabatier et al. had discovered in 1897 the reverse relationship between the hydrogen content of fats and their fluidity.

The industrial production of hydrogenated fat began in 1911 with whale oil as initial source.

Another chemical reaction patented between 1920 and 1930 contributed to the production of margarine with definite physical properties, the glyceride interesterification.

After a great expansion after 1930, whale oil was no longer used after 1950 owing to international catch regulation and was replaced by various fish oils mainly in Japon, in Norway and in the United Kingdom. These oils are extracted from fatty fish (herring, menhaden, anchovy…) which leave another protein-rich product used for animal rearing, fish meal.

Now, margarine is produced all over the world mainly from oils of various vegetals   (soja, peanut, sunflower, soybean, peanut, safflower, cotton, coconut, rapeseed, palm tree, linseed, corn, karite, sesam…). Blended oils are mixed with skim milk or cream, several ingredients are then added such as vitamin A, carotene, lecithin and various preservatives. Regular margarine must contain 80 percent fat. Several kinds of margarine are actually developed: soft margarine, whipped margarine, liquid margarine and reduced-fat margarine. All these products are valuable as low cholesterol fat sources.

It may be noticed that the production of margarine was largely improved in the 1940s by the development of a new machine, the votator, which is an enclosed dry system consisting of scraped surface heat exchangers and crystallizers. For the first time the complete production process was totally enclosed and continuous. By the 1970s the integrated addition of packing machines to votator allowed the production of up to 400 margarine packs per minute. The complete process is thus carried out in about 10 minutes and the productivity is, in larger plants, is about 800 MT per person per year. 

More information about margarine and its history (mainly in USA) may  be found on the Official web site of the National Association of Margarine Manufacturer

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