In the late 19th century, the Margarine Act of 1886 taxed the entire burgeoning margarine industry nearly out of business. Margarine, invented by French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries in the 1860s, was considered a cheaper and tasty alternative to butter. Low-income families happily jumped on the spreadable commodity:
In 1871, the U.S. Dairy Company began manufacturing margarine in New York City. In March 1874, Harper’s Weekly reported that two factories in New York produced 19,000 pounds of margarine daily, and eight million pounds had been consumed in the United States within the past year.
And, the dairy lobby quickly took to the levers of power to sink their new competition. Butter producers suggested margarine was made of tainted fat and masquerading as butter. After that, they convinced the New York state legislator to ban the product, but the law was later overturned as unconstitutional. Onto Congress, which did not ban the substance, but imposed crippling taxes upon it:
After the constant legal and marketing barrage had driven the margarine industry to a shadow of its former glory, Uncle Sam weighed in. In 1886 the Federal Margarine Act slapped a special two-cent tax on margarine and required annual license fees. Margarine butter producers were now forced to pay $600 a year; wholesalers, $480; and retailers, $48, simply to be allowed to sell margarine!
Many states also got around constitutional concerns about banning margarine outright by banning the dyeing of margarine yellow. The natural color of margarine is an unappetizing translucent white-ish, so its success as a butter substitute was somewhat reliant on this cosmetic change. Other states required that margarine be colored pink to distinguish it from butter.
Flash forward several decades, and you’ll find the decades-long push from nutritionists and the federal government against butter and in favor of margarine. Why? Because saturated fat, found in butter, was the health villain of the moment— sure to raise bad cholesterol and therefore heart disease risk. Whereas the vegetable oils and, yes, trans fats in margarine were considered dandy, even though the current complaint about trans fats is that it raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol, increasing heart disease risk.
Not all margarine these days has trans fat in it, but that wasn’t the case widely when the government was recommending it to curb your butter habit for so long.
And now of course, the government knows best again. Sure, we’ve been wrong and/or corrupt for a century when it comes to regulating your nutrition choices, they say, but how ’bout another giant dose of overreach? The FDA’s just going to ban trans fats altogether. Because they know best.
Until it turns out they don’t.
Repeat after me. Not everything you think is problematic must be banned. Not everything you fancy must be mandated.