Libertarians and others saw evidence of a metastasizing “nanny state” in 2006 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned artificial trans fats in New York City. A similar outcry is likely to follow last week’s announcement that the Food and Drug Administration has taken the first steps toward eliminating partially hydrogenated oils from the American diet.
These aren’t the first man-made fats to attract such intense controversy. An earlier generation of Americans fought over another, very similar creation: oleomargarine. Curiously, the outcome of that battle helped introduce trans fats into the food chain.
Oleomargarine’s history begins in the 1860s, when many Europeans worried that butter had become too expensive, especially in the burgeoning cities. This led the French government to offer a prize at the Paris World Exhibition of 1866 for an affordable butter substitute. Three years later, French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries came up with a creation he dubbed “oleomargarine.”
The name — derived from the Latin word for oil and the Greek word for pearl — sounded innocent, but oleomargarine was made from fat stripped from slaughtered cattle. This tallow was diced and combined with chopped sheep or pig stomachs, which helped “digest” or separate liquid fat from residual animal tissue.
After skimming off the fat and letting it cool and crystallize, Mege-Mouries added milk and water, along with bicarbonate of soda and chopped cow’s udder, which helped emulsify the slurry. Then, the substance was processed into a fat that looked much like butter. Whether it tasted like butter was debatable.
In the United States, the Oleo-Margarine Manufacturing Co. began churning out blocks of the substance, which sold for less than conventional butter did. Sales of margarine initially boomed, and by 1886, more than 40 factories processed waste fats from slaughterhouses, turning it into oleomargarine. It was gobbled up by consumers unable to afford the real thing, leading some to dub it “poor man’s butter.”
It struck many as a grotesque distortion of the food chain. For butter producers and the dairy industry generally, it also posed a threat to their livelihood, and they publicized horrifying tales of its production.
The industrial processes for making oleomargarine didn’t require particularly high temperatures — “not enough,” in the words of one expert, “to destroy the eggs of tape worms and other parasites.” In 1878, Scientific American reported that a government scientist had found animal tissue in samples of oleomargarine, along with evidence that the raw fat used in its production was “probably that of a diseased animal.”
This “greasy counterfeit,” as one critic described it, ultimately drew the attention of legislators and regulators. Missouri banned it outright in 1881, as did New York in 1884, inspiring a number of other states to pass similar legislation.
Eventually, the federal government bowed to pressure from the dairy industry. The Oleomargarine Act of 1886 slapped a 2-cent tax on every pound of domestic margarine and a 15-cent levy on imports. State laws that required margarine to be colored pink so as to distinguish it from genuine butter also put a damper on sales.
In its announcement, the FDA said that trans fats were no longer “generally recognized as safe,” adding that banning them would prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.
Clearly, 19th-century dairymen and their allies weren’t entirely off base when they assailed “oleomargarine and its kindred abominations” cooked up in laboratories and factories.
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg View’s Ticker.