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. This product was gobbled up by consumers unable to afford the real thing, leading some to dub it “poor man's butter.”
It was hard to like oleomargarine. 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.”
Others made far-fetched claims that were (one hopes) false. An agricultural journal reported in all seriousness that London's oleomargarine producers had taken to skimming “fatty deposits” from the undulating currents of waste in city sewers. This, too, could pass for butter after an alchemical transformation, or so the newspaper alleged.
Yet oleomargarine production increased. Some people knowingly bought it. Many others unwittingly consumed it, thanks to the commonplace practice of selling it as butter.
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.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately struck down New York's law, it upheld similar legislation passed in Pennsylvania. Other states passed measures limiting or banning oleomargarine outright, but they lacked the ability to enforce these laws.
In the meantime, oleomargarine producers continued churning it out, with the big meatpackers in Chicago such as Swift & Co. and Armour & Co. getting into the game.
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. Additional licensing fees on both producers and retailers made it less lucrative. State laws that required margarine to be colored pink so as to distinguish it from genuine butter also put a damper on sales.
All of this reflected the sense that oleomargarine wasn't simply unhealthy, but a perverse distortion of nature. In 1902, a critic declared: “Things have come to a strange pass when the steer competes with the cow as a butter maker. ... I desire butter that comes from the dairy, not the slaughterhouse.”
Help was on the way. That same year, scientists discovered that liquid fats derived from plants — cottonseed oil, soybean oil and others — could be solidified by hydrogenating them. These were the first “trans fats,” and they promised a far more reliable, pure and less gruesome source for the solid fats used to produce margarine.
By the 1920s, partially hydrogenated coconut oil had become the basis of most margarine. While this, too, became the target of the dairy industry, margarine would eventually occupy a place of pride on American tables, thanks in part to the rationing of butter during World War II.
In the postwar era, margarine laden with trans fats would come to be seen as healthier than butter itself: fewer calories and a tonic for the heart.
Oops. Now we know more. In its announcement last week, 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.