food / travel

Margarine, From Poor French Man’s Butter To Vegan Staple

Did you know the funny yellow stuff was born in the land of beurre?

I can't believe it's not butter
I can't believe it's not butter
JP Géné

PARIS â€" It's nothing but oil and additives, without a single fresh ingredient whatsoever. But it's affordable, and well packaged, and so it sells. We're talking about margarine. The poor man’s butter.

It is a perfect example of how the food industry multinationals, with their slick marketing, big advertising budgets and unfailing support from large retailers, can push just about anything on the public and earn huge returns in the process.

Despite regular health warnings, margarine is experiencing a new lease on life and giving the product it tries to immitate, butter, a run for its money. France remains the worldwide leader with annual butter consumption of 8 kilos per person. But, for the past 30 years, sales have been steadily declining against competition from vegetable oils and margarine. In 2012, France produced 410,000 tons of butter. That same year, it produced 93,000 tons of margarine, with sales and consumption estimated at 471 million euros and 2.66 kilos per person respectively.

Margarine's recent success is due in part to a major structural shift in the market. In 2000, 93% of products seen on shelf displays were classic margarine (traditional or light). Only 8% displayed some kind of "health claim." Today, the balance is reversed: 63% claim to have "health" qualities.

Much of the focus is on things like omega 3 and 6, and vitamin A, D, B1, E1, which reduce cholesterol, help with good cardiovascular functioning and, of course, are environmentally friendly and sustainable. On supermarket shelves, in fact, it’s hard to find a label that even says "margarine" these days. Distributors prefer the term "spread."

Long gone are the days when Mr. Boudet, the rapporteur of the Paris public health commission, considered erecting a statue made out of margarine in honor of its brilliant inventor, Hippolyte Mège-Mouries â€" on the condition, of course, that the monument not be exposed to intense sunbeams.

That was on the eve of the Paris Commune, a time when the Eating and Drinking Society acknowledged that "the most essential nutrient after bread, the most indispensable both on the table and in the kitchen, is butter." Butter, though, was expensive, often defective and inaccessible to the working class. There was a pressing need, therefore, to make "a fresh, nutritional butter, free of any element that could harm the public health or one’s own consumption."

This would be the work of Mr. Mège-Mouriès, a chemist and wheat specialist who emulsified beef fat with milk and water to produce "a real butter that could replace ordinary milk butter." Mège-Mouriès's invention was authorized for sale in 1872 under the name "margarine," and at the end of the 1870 war, it started spreading around the world â€" no pun intentended. A 100% made-in-France success!

The discovery, in the 1920s, of the hydrogenation of vegetable oils process made it possible to drop animal fats and solidify margarine with the emulsion of oils and water. Then came the battle of fats: the "bad" saturated fats present in cheeses, butter or cream, versus the “good” non-saturated fats contained in the vegetable oils used in margarine.

Margarine manufacturers and nutritionists hostile to butter had hit the jackpot. But then came the discovery of an even worse fat â€" the "trans fat" â€" which is generated during the hydrogenation process and likely to cause at the same time an increase of bad cholesterol, risks of heart attacks or heart diseases. Faced with adversity, the industry developed the "fractionation" method, which limits the tenor in trans fat to less than 1%.

All the additives, aromas, food colorings, preservatives still appear alongside the palm, sunflower, linseed, colza and copra oils enriched in omega 3 and vitamins. The list of ingredients on the back of a margarine pack is always longer than for butter â€" but with one notable difference: margarine contains nothing of animal origin.

That difference makes all the difference for vegetarians and vegans, the new followers of this jewel of the food industry who are demonstrating once again that to feed themselves, they often prefer the factory over the farm.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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