|MadSci Network: Chemistry|
No. 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 It was originally made from animal fats which are semi-solid at room temperature.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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