Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Forget Butter – We Want Margarine!

Invented in France in 1867, oleomargarine was banned in Canada in 1886. The spread was enriched and affordable, and it was a threat to the dairy industry.

Margarine, the butter substitute that is slathered on toast, baked into muffins and melting on top of a scoop of mashed potatoes, was a welcomed product for consumers in Canada and countries around the world. Invented in France by chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouries in 1867, the edible oil product then called oleomargarine was patented in 1870 and quickly spread across the ocean to North America. That’s when the trouble started.

Margarine A Prohibited Product

The colour packet, squeezed to spread colour into white margarine

The colour packet, squeezed to spread colour into white margarine

Enriched with Vitamins A and D to provide a healthy substitute for expensive butter, margarine was affordable for almost everyone. Originally made with beef fat, the spread changed to a vegetable oil base with new manufacturing techniques. But, dairy farmers objected. The farmers made every attempt to slow the production and sale of margarine, even taking their complaints to the federal government. Since the dairymen were good, solid voters of the day, the politicians heeded their call. Margarine was deemed “an injurious product.” According to Canadian Encyclopedia, the “manufacture and sale of margarine was forbidden by an Act of Parliament” in 1886.

No Vote, No Say

Banning margarine was a political move that left out the opinions of those

New product Margarine!

New product Margarine!

who could not vote – women, men who did not own property and the poor. It was claimed by MP Arthur Gillmore of New Brunswick that, “If those who use oleomargarine were the electors of this country, you would not find so many to support this proposition,” noted Ruth Dupre in an essay on

The pressures of war-time brought a shortage of butter during WWI. Budget-conscious and interested in health, women demanded margarine on the table for their families. The ban was lifted as a war-measures act, permitting the legal manufacture and sale of margarine one year at a time. Canadians enjoyed the butter-like spread until 1923, when it was once again brought under prohibition by a protectionist government trying to guard the dairy farmers. The Quebec farmers were a powerful lobby against oleomargarine with petitions from 800 agricultural societies, said Ruth Dupre. (NewFoundland was still a British colony and ignored the law. The Newfoundland Butter Company produced only margarine and at half the price of real butter, said CBC News Indepth in March 2005.

Margarine Prohibition Dropped 1948

In 1948, a challenge was brought before the Supreme Court of Canada to have the ban on margarine removed. Farmers fought the new law, noted a radio archive clip from the CBC, stating it would destroy their livelihood, as less milk would be needed, fewer cows would be required, few fields would receive manure fertilization and many would fall fallow. The Court disagreed. No longer classed as an injurious product, margarine was legalized, becoming a provincial responsibility. The fight wasn’t quite over for the spread, though. The Province of Quebec then banned the product to protect its own farming community. Even possession of margarine was a crime in Quebec, but manufacturers worked around the law, renaming margarine a spread. The Ontario government refused to allow margarine to be coloured like butter at the factory.

Ontario manufacturers included food colouring packets

To avoid penalty, some manufacturers produced a bright yellow margarine, others a white product. To get the light, butter-yellow shading that consumers desired, manufacturers sold their white margarine with packets of food colouring. Added by the customer, it would take up to 20 minutes of mixing and squishing to get the yellow hue throughout the margarine.

Quebec finally permitted margarine production and sale in 1961, as long as the colouring could not be confused with butter. A butter battle was brought to court again in 1997 by food manufacturer Unilever Company. Battling back and forth for years, in 2005 the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Quebec law requiring margarine to be white. In all other provinces, margarine may be purchased in range of yellow hues.

This article first appeared on in 2008.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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