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A butter substitute; made from vegetable oil which undergoes hydrogenation.

The French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouries was commissioned by Napoleon the third, to invent a butter replacement for the navy, and came up with something that sounds so unpalatable that I doubt it would have any sales these days. Realising that butter was actually animal fat, he mixed a quantity of beef suet with minced sheep"s stomach, some chopped cow"s udder, a little warm milk and margaric acid (a white fatty acid named after the Greek word for pearl - margaron). The result was declared to be satisfactory, and after some initial opposition from the Paris Council of Hygiene - which first hesitated about allowing the product to be sold for human consumption - commercial sales started in 1873. Mège-Mouries named his product "margarites".

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Other countries were quick to take up the idea. Food producers in the U.S.A investing heavily to come up with something made with more palatable ingredients. As margarites was patented, "Butterine" was their answer - which although still using by-products from slaughter houses, dispensed with the cows" udders and sheeps" stomachs". By 1876 America was exporting a million pounds of butterine to Britain alone! The name margarine replacing butterine over a period of time.

Although much cheaper than butter, manufacturers had to spend enormous amounts on research to make the product truly palatable. By the late 1890"s vegetable oils were being utilised - this gave margarine much the same melting point as butter; the in the late 1920"s newly invented vitamin concentrates were added to premium brands.

Two Dutch companies, Van den Bergh and Juergens, were the market leaders in Europe; and towards the end of the 19th century they joined together with the British firm Levers to form the present multinational - Unilever.

The average American now eats more than eleven pounds 5 kilos of margarine a year which is twice his average butter consumption. In Britain thee opposite is true, with the cheaper varieties in particular being eaten in smaller and smaller quantities. And the inventors - the French - they hardly eat any!

Margarine is only one of many man-made food items in regular use today - some others are breakfast foods, cola drinks, tea bags and gelatine desserts.

Health: Both butter and margarine contain about 11gr of fat per tablespoon, although of this butter has 8gr of saturated fat as against 2gr for margarine. But margarine contains trans fatty acids, which come from the hydrogenation of the substance to make a more stable, solid type of fat - this leads to increased levels of lipoprotein cholesterol.

In a recent analysis of the connection between eating habits and disease from the Framingham study in the U.S.A. researchers found that margarine, but not butter, was linkedto a higher risk of coronary heart disease. The researchers concluded that this supports the hypothesis that 'margarine intake increases the risk of coronary heart disease'.

The future growth in the margarine market would seem to be in the "Functional food" sector.

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