Resolving to Eat Bootleg Butter?

Happy New Decade Folks!

This is not just the time to think about resolutions for the year, but a great time to think about the next ten. Most of my resolutions are pretty standard - health and wellness and whatnot. For this decade, I've been thinking a lot about food. Not just 'eating right', but eating whole food. I'm inspired by Michael Pollan's 'In Defense of Food', and its basic premise: eat what your grandparents ate, including whole foods, and live with the basic culinary traditions that have been with us for hundreds of years.

So, I'm thinking about my dear grandmother, and I can hear her Newfoundland-accented voice asking me to 'pass the margarine'. (That's mar-jer-EEN - heavy emphasis on the 'een'.) Margarine? If there is any food that could be described as the complete opposite of a whole food, it has to be margarine. Surely, this is not what Michael Pollan had in mind.  I have been eating real butter in moderation for some time, not only because we now know that trans fats in margarines are worse than the saturated fat in butter, but because it just tastes so good. I started thinking about how much of a staple margarine was to my Newfie relatives and wondered, why?

It had to be the bootleggers. I swear, this is not the start of a joke, but a real fact. Truthfully, margarine was illegal in Canada until 1948. Up until that point, you could not make or purchase it at all. Margarine was invented by French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés in 1869, after Napoleon offered a prize to anyone who could come up with a cheaper butter substitute. Not only could margarine be made and sold much more cheaply than butter, but it stored well, making it ideal for the armed forces of the time.

Now, you can imagine how ideal this new product would be to an island colony such as Newfoundland. With an abundance of whale oil, Newfoundland had its own industry ready for the butterknives of a great nation, at half the cost of butter. Great economic opportunity sometimes collides with the law; the great Newfoundland margarine pirates moved their product across the nation, labelled none other than from the 'Newfoundland Butter Company.' This company, founded by John Chalker Crosbie (grandfather to another famous John Crosbie) became the largest manufacturer in Newfoundland. Bootleg "butter" was big business.

However, after WWII, Canada left the regulation of butter and spreads to the provinces, and bootleg butter was no more. Neither was Crosbie's company - in 1938, it was sold to Unilever, and after margarine was legal, they changed the name of the business to the Newfoundland Margarine Company. 

Alright, so what does this bit of Canadiana have to do with anything? If we go back to the butter vs. margarine debate, I'm caught up in the company that disbanded the butter pirates, Unilever. Unilever still makes a lot of margarine, and sells the most profitable spreadable product sold in Canada. With 49.1% marketshare, that product is Becel. Becel is interesting because it comes soft, and even though it's margarine, has no trans fats. A lot of marketing money has been spent trying to convince us that Becel is good for you - their website reads more like a cardiology primer than an edible spread site. 

Becel uses an interesting process to achieve this product called interesterification. In a nutshell, the fat molecules are rearranged in a way that the oils used are hardened, but without causing trans fats to form, like they do when margarine is hydrogenated. This process was discovered while making bio-diesel. Yum!

On one hand, I'm thinking this sounds like a good deal - lots of buttery-like goodness with no trans-fat - that's got to be good for your ticker. But, that other hand keeps pointing to the fact that the new 'interesterified' fat molecules have a structure our bodies have never seen before. Hmmm...Some short term studies have shown no ill effects, but, there have not been any long term studies to date. 

So, the dilemma continues. I think back to whole food, and remember that making margarine is a really gross process. The oil is removed by using solvents like hexane or trichorethylene, then refined with sodium hydroxide. Since what you end up with is a smelly gray concoction, you need to bleach and deodorize it before you blast it with hydrogen to harden it, and if you make Becel, you interesterify it, and finally add colours and flavour. 

Perhaps my resolve will remain with the humble cow, and I will continue to spread, melt and slather butter - in moderation, of course. 


  1. Love it!!! And I agree, have been eatting real butter in moderation of course, for quite a while. Cannot even fathom why people would eat the othet stuff, it is terrible!!!! Anyhow, just wanted to let you know I am really enjoying your posts. Hope you guys had a great xmas. Laura

  2. I'm all about the butter. Scott's grandmother use to say "I don't want no ole "margareen" - pass me the butta!" - From the stories I have been told, she was a lot like your grandmother.

    Don't forget Julia Child would have no part of margarine!

    After all, if the bugs won't eat it, should we???

  3. How often we're taken in by the ad men! Fresh orange juice is kept in a tank for a year and then refreshed. I won't derink it unless I squeeze it... personally.

  4. That would be "drink".

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