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February 14  

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter

The Awful Story of Margarine

Can't Believe It's Not Butter

Coal Butter

Margarine was originally called "coal butter" because it was made from an unwanted by-product of turning low-grade coal into a liquid fuel.

For the origin story, we need to go back to 1930s Germany, where the Nazi party was already in control. They understood that war was coming and that Germany would need vast quantities of liquid fuel for tanks, planes and cars.

Germany didn't have its own oil, but it did have large deposits of lignite, a low-quality coal that was around 30% carbon.

Two scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute developed a process to convert this coal to liquid fuel and nine production sites were operating by the early 1940s, one year after the outbreak of World War 2.

Slack Wax

The process of converting coal to liquid fuel left behind a by-product called "slack wax", later referred to as paraffin.

As well as fuel, Germany was short of edible fat, dependent on the importation of whale oil from the Antarctic, soybeans from East Asia and linseed from South America.

The slack wax required very little extra processing to turn it into an edible fat (slightly different processing would have turned it into soap instead).

Of course, it was white, waxy and tasteless, but these were minor issues for the chemists involved. Taste, color and texture just required the addition of more chemicals and the result was...

Coal Butter: The First Totally Synthetic Food.

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The Margarine Reward

An Honorary Aryan

For an insight into the Nazi thinking at the time, consider this:

One of the pioneers of the coal butter development process had a Jewish mother, but that was no problem. Hitler directed that he be made "an honorary Aryan" and this was duly carried out via a letter sent to the scientist by Göring.

This allowed the Nazis to announce as a propaganda victory and a great achievement.

The data that showed that it caused severe kidney problems and bone decalcification and that experimental dogs refused to eat it was not published.

Modern Margarine Marketing

I Can't Believe It's Not Butter

Of course, after the war, the allies inherited all the technology, along with the actual coal butter factories.

Because the newly named margarine was much cheaper to produce than butter and could be created in almost limitless quantities (you can only herd so many cows before you run out of pasture) 20th century advertising soon kicked in.

The genius was to position it, not as a butter substitute but as a superior product.

Spreadable straight from the fridge (a boon to the rushed school lunch preparation).

And somehow healthier, preying on a totally discredited study that persuaded people that animal fat was bad for you (it's actually essential for health) and so you should avoid dairy.

It's simply not true.

And no matter what chemicals they put in it, for me at least butter simply tastes better.


For a lighter take on this serious subject, check out The Vicar of Dibley: I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.

Also, it's one of Chuck Norris's superpowers. Apparently, he CAN believe it's not butter.

About the Author

Turning 80 in 2024, I weigh the same as I did when I was 18 and remain seriously fit and healthy.
I'm on a mission to help everyone to become happy, fit and slim.
In the long-term, the only way to prevent the dreaded yo-yo effect and not only lose weight but keep it off for the rest of your life is to embrace a lifestyle change that welcomes healthy eating and moderate exercise.
But that can be dishearteningly slow for most people.
It’s very easy to fall away from that journey before it’s had time for any real effect and also well before it’s had any chance to become a lifestyle habit.
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Studies show that most overweight people have a compromised liver function. So the first prong is a supplement designed to help you lose weight immediately by fixing that.
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Phil Lancaster

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  1. Wow, this was an eye-opening article for me.

    For most of my life, I've believed that margarine was a healthier alternative to butter. Why? Because it was derived from vegetables, which somehow had to be cleaner and healthier than something milked from a cow, right? Because animal fat was bad for you, right? And didn't it make you fat.

    And, of course, being able to spread it straight from the fridge was a huge bonus.

    When my grandmother (who was a dairy farmer both before and after grandad died) tried to tell me there was nothing tastier and healthier than the butter she use to churn directly from her own herd of cows, I just dismissed her as old-fashioned.

    How I wish she was still alive so that I could apologize.

    Because I understand now that, like so many others, I was just a victim of false and misleading advertising.

    Coal butter – Yuck!

    I'm now back to using real butter for both spreading and cooking.

    And enjoying it so much more.

    1. Hi Evelyn and thanks for your comment. I’m really pleased to have brought the reality of fake butter to your attention.

      And glad that you’ve rediscovered the taste and value of real butter.

      Your grandmother would be proud!

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