MadSci Network: Chemistry

Re: Any truth to margarine being close to plastic in molecular structure?

Date: Thu Jan 15 15:27:51 2004
Posted By: Todd Whitcombe, Associate Professor, Chemistry
Area of science: Chemistry
ID: 1071285191.Ch

    Okay, that is the simple answer. The full answer will take a little 
longer and I will need to make clear some definitions and history. 
First, "plastic" according to the Oxford English Dictionary 
means "moulding, giving form to, clay, wax, or other yielding solid". 
That is, something is "plastic" if it is maleable. And in this sense, 
then, the statement that "margarine is plastic" is correct. Margarine can 
be moulded and shaped. It is quite a good material for artistic work. Our 
local culinary program spends some time creating "margarine" sculptures 
each year.
    But I don't think that that is what you mean by your question. I 
gather what you would like to know is - is margarine "one molecule" away 
from being a polymeric substance exhibiting the properties of 
synthetic "plastic" compounds, like polyethylene or PET? It is that 
question that the answer is "no". You could not simply add a molecule to 
margarine and make plastic milk jugs or pop bottles.
    Both butter and margarine owe their origins to animal fats. Butter is 
made from milk fat. To make butter, it is necessary to take all of the 
fat that is dispersed through the liquid component of the cream and to 
get it into a single lump. Agitation results in the formation of bubbles 
and the fat is thought to conglomerate in the walls of the bubbles. When 
enough fat is collected together, the bubbles collapse and creamy, smooth 
butter is formed. Butter has a composition that is essentially 80% animal 
fat and 20% water with traces of other components. As it is made from 
animal fat, there is a percentage of cholesterol found in butter - a 
natural component of animal fat.
    Margarine was developed in 1869 by the French pharmacist and chemist, 
Hippolyte Mege-Mouries, after Napolean III offered a prize for the 
formulation of a synthetic edible fat. It was originally made from animal 
fats which are semi-solid at room temperature. Mege-Mouries was not the 
first to give suet a buttery texture but he was the first to make it 
palatable by flavouring it with milk. 
    It was not until 1905, after hydrogenation had been discovered, that 
margarine could be conveniently made from the much more plentiful 
vegetable oils. Hydrogenation results in a "saturated" fat. And saturated 
fats have higher melting points than unsaturated fats. By hydrogenating 
vegetable oils, a solid could be obtained. Modern margarine was born.
    Margarine quickly caught on in Europe and elsewhere. Patents were 
issued and production ramped up. But it was strongly opposed by the dairy 
industry of the time. Legislation defined it as a "harmful drug" and its 
sale was restricted. Then it was heavily taxed. Stores had to be licensed 
to sell it. A "margarine" bootleg industry developed. In attempt to hold 
it to its true "pasty white" colour, some states did not allow margarine 
to be dyed yellow. (The dye was sold separately and mixed in with the 
margarine at home.) But two World Wars and the consequent shortages of 
butter, ensured margarine's place in the modern home. Still, it was not 
until 1967 that yellow margarine could be sold in Wisconsin. Presently, 
margarine sales are about 3 times those of butter.
    Like butter, margarine is about 80% fat and 20% water and solids. But 
being from vegetable sources, it lacks cholesterol. It is flavoured, 
coloured, and fortified with vitamins and so "nutritionally" it is very 
similar to butter - without the cholesterol. Today, soy and corn oils 
predominate as the source - eating margarine is really not that much 
different from eating the raw oils from either corn or soy. Yes, it has 
been hydrogenated but it is certainly a lot lower in saturated fats than 
butter. Indeed, the proportion of saturated fats in liquid oils, tub or 
soft margarines, hard margarines, and butter increase in that order.
    So, I am not sure where the rest of the information that you quote in 
the message comes from. But the question of whether or not, "margarine is 
but one molecule away from being plastic." is the equivalent of asking 
whether or not corn oil or soy bean oil or peanut oil is "one molecule" 
away from being plastic. Yes, if you were very persistent, you could 
likely find a way to polymerize the double bonds - the "unsaturation" - 
of the fatty acids in the margarine and in so doing make a long chain 
polymeric substance that would be similar to other polymers. But "one 
molecule away" implies that margarine is "essentially plastic" and this 
is far from the truth. Margarine is not "plastic" and making it so would 
be difficult.
     Margarine does contains more double bonds than butter. This is a 
good thing. It makes margarine easier to digest and better for our diet. 
But if we are using the criteria that the presence of unsaturation could 
be used to form a polymeric substance, then the same thing could be said 
about butter or the trans and cis fatty acids in you. Personally, I don't 
like to think of myself as being "one molecule away from being plastic". 
Nor am I particularly worried about the notion that someone might find 
that one molecule that would polymerize my double bonds!
     Hope this answers your question. Personally, I only eat margarine.

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