Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Creation of Margarine

Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès
In the period prior to the 20th century, butter was a luxury commodity. Only the wealthy and the aristocracy could only afford. The main reason was it’s made of pure dairy. And dairy was too expensive for the common people. And so in the 1860’s, a leader would present a prize that would led to the creation of a butter substitute – margarine.

Napoleon III, ruler of France, was looking in a way to resolve the expensive price of fats and oils, most important being butter. His country was experiencing status of great power. Militarily, its strength was one of the strongest in the world. Economically, it was experiencing the industrial revolution. Napoleon III rose as he fought for the rights of laborers and the rising middle class, the bourgeoisie. And one problem of the urban poor was the expensive butter which could help in cooking and preservation. In order to gain continuous support of the people, he must solve the problem. As a result in 1866, he announced that he would give a reward to whoever could make a substitute for butter.

For three years, the contest was on. It seemed no one interested. Or better yet, the contest was forgotten or ignored by the scientific community.

It was not until a worker from Napoleon III’s personal farm, the Ferme Imperiale de la Faisanderie, passed his entry to Napoleon III. He was Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès. Mège-Mouriès was simple chemist from the southern regions of France. During 1840’s up to 1850’s he made several innovations that helped the French food industry. He filed patents from improving sugar extraction to a new type of chocolate. In 1861, he was awarded the Legion d’honneur after improving the bread rations of the French Army.

Mège-Mouriès passed an entry to Napoleon III for a cheaper substitute for butter. He called his product Oleomargarine. Oleo came from the ingredient Oleo oil and margarine from a Greek word that meant pearl. Mège-Mouriès research for oleomargarine dates back when he was still a student of Michel Eugene Chevereul, a chemist that discovered margaric acid. From this Mège-Mouriès started to study a butter substitute at Napoleon III’s farm. He focused in using beef fat as a based. He then mixed it with oleo oil, salt, and milk. The mixture was then emulsified in order to milk the fat, oil, and dairy. The result was then chilled. It then resulted to somewhat unappetizing and pearly like white substance, thus called margarine.

Napoleon III gave a reward to Mège-Mouriès because of his discovery and patented it. The reward allowed him to build a factory in Paris to produce oleomargarine. The factory and the product, however, was short lived. Just a year after Mège-Mouriès discovery of margarine, the Franco-Prussian War began. And a year after the start of the war, Napoleon III surrendered to Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Paris was surrounded and bombarded by the Prussian Army. The bombardment led to the destruction of Mège-Mouriès’ factory. Lacking of cash and no capability of manufacturing his invention, in 1871, he sold the patent to a Dutch businessman, Antonious Johannes Jurgens, the owner of Jurgen. The company later merge with another company to form the multi-national Unilever.

Day, L. & I. McNeil. Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Ensminger, A. et. al. Food & Nutrition Encyclopedia. Florida: CRC LLC, 1994. 

Gratzer, W. Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 

Snodgrass, M. Encyclopedia of Kitchen History. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004.

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