Pronunciation: [MAHR-juh-rihn; MAHRJ-rihn]

A butter substitute developed and patented by French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés in 1869. His creation was the result of a contest promoted by the Emperor Napoleon III to find an inexpensive alternative for the then scarce and expensive butter. Although the original version included beef fat renderings, today's margarines are based on vegetable oils. In order for margarine to become solid, the oil must undergo a chemical transformation known as hydrogenation — indicated as "hydrogenated" (or "partially hydrogenated") oils on a label. During hydrogenation, extra hydrogen atoms are pumped into unsaturated fat, a process that creates trans fatty acids and converts the mixture into a saturated fat, thereby obliterating any benefits it had as a polyunsaturate. Some researchers believe that hydrogenated oils may actually be more damaging than regular saturated fats for those limiting cholesterol in their diets, but the jury's still out on that debate. Those margarines lowest in cholesterol are made from a high percentage of polyunsaturated canola, safflower or corn oil. To make this butter substitute taste and look more like the real thing, cream or milk is often added. Food coloring, preservatives, emulsifiers and vitamins A and D are also common additives. Careful label scrutiny is advised because the ingredients affect everything from flavor to texture to nutritive value. Regular margarine must contain 80 percent fat. The remaining 20 percent consists of liquid, coloring, flavoring and other additives. Margarine is available salted and unsalted. So are butter-margarine blends, which are usually proportioned 40 percent to 60 percent, respectively. Cholesterol-lowering margarines hit the market in 1999. These "miracle margarines" contain no hydrogenated trans fatty acids and are typically made from a blend of oils such as palm oil, soybean oil, canola oil and olive oil. They can lower cholesterol levels in the blood by as much as 10 percent, with each percentage point creating a 3 percent drop in the risk of heart disease. They're made with plant-derived compounds (sterol and stanol esters) that obstruct cholesterol absorption. Soft margarine is made with all vegetable oils (no animal fats) and remains soft and spreadable when cold. Whipped margarine has had air (which sometimes can equal half the volume) beaten into it, making it fluffy and easy to spread. Because of the added air, it cannot be substituted for regular margarine in baked goods. So-called liquid margarine is soft enough to be squeezable when cold and comes in pliable bottles made specifically for that purpose. It's convenient for basting and for foods such as corn on the cob and waffles. There are also many reduced-fat margarines on the market today. These products range from about 25 percent to 65 percent less fat than regular margarine. There's even fat-free margarine, the ingredients of which include gelatin, rice starch and lactose. The first ingredient listed on reduced-fat margarine labels is water, which means they can't be substituted for regular margarine for baking and frying, and which also means they can make toast soggy. Margarine comes in 1-pound packages — either in four (4-ounce) sticks or in two (8-ounce) tubs. It's also available in 1-pound tubs. All margarine readily absorbs flavors and therefore should be wrapped airtight for storage. Refrigerate margarine for up to two months; freeze for up to six months. In its early days, margarine was also known as oleomargarine.

From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

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