When, over a hundred years ago, margarine was first introduced as a cheap alternative to butter, it was so threatening to butter’s prized place on the kitchen table that federal regulations in the United States, influenced by a powerful U.S. dairy industry, prohibited makers from adding colorants, condemning the new spread to remain pale and whitish. Some clever makers, to circumvent this restriction, attached packs of a red dye to the tubs of margarine so that homemakers could add the colors at home.
Margarine remains cheaper than butter because it is made from mostly from vegetable oils (theoretically animal fats can be used to make margarine as well), which are plentiful and inexpensive, and water. Margarine, indeed, was once known as “oleo” or “oleomargarine” because “oleo” means oil (indeed, one of the more popular crossword puzzle clues for a four-letter word is “spread”. The answer is invariably “oleo” ).
But margarine is not just oil and water. Additives and important process considerations permit the blend to spread like butter, look like butter, have the cooking properties of butter, and taste enough like butter to be a convincing spread. It is on these process considerations and ingredients, and on maintaining the pareve status of pareve-certified margarine, that attention of a hashgacha on margarine is focused.
As most people are aware, oil and water don’t blend easily. Furthermore, some ingredients dissolve in oil and some dissolve in water. Thus, two processes take place simultaneously in a margarine production. An oil slurry is prepared in one part of the plant, and a water-based recipe is prepared separately.
A mashgiach must verify, of course, that the oil is vegetable-based and kosher certified.
Mono and diglycerides are added to the oil-based preparation. Mono and diglycerides are emulsifiers, and will be critical in permitting the oil to blend properly with the water when the two are later added together. Mono and diglycerides are themselves derived from oils and fats, and these ingredients merit special attention by a mashgiach. A colorant, which is called beta-carotene, is also added to the oil phase. Finally, Vitamin A, which, in many countries, is required to be added to margarine, is added to the oil phase. The emulsifiers, the beta-carotene, and Vitamin A all create challenges for Pesach certification, which is usually why there has been so little Pesach-certified margarine on the market. The emulsifiers may come from kitniyot – oils, the beta-carotene is often marketed in something called a suspension, which is usually from kitniyot-based oils, and Vitamin A must be produced using ingredients that must be specifically cleared for Pesach use.
A water phase is prepared separately and contains salt, water, and preservatives. If the margarine is destined to be a dairy product, milk, which adds flavor (and presumably helps the margarine taste more like butter) is added here as well. While the mixing of the water phase is going, the oil is agitated at a slow pace to keep it from solidifying.
The oil and water are combined and run through a machine called a Votator, which is a brand name for this commonly used equipment. The Votator is a cylinder about eight feet long, with spinning hard plastic or metal blades inside. The Votator receives the warm liquid oil and water and whips it through its refrigerated chamber. The margarine becomes crystallized and forms it into a solid. From the Votator the margarine moves on to the filler line where it is pumped into a mold to give it its rectangular shape, and finally wrapped.
Nearly every manufacturer of margarine produces both dairy and pareve varieties. Every brand, even those that are used exclusively for pareve margarine, must produce in a dairy/pareve facility Every kashrut agency that certifies pareve margarine should therefore be familiar with how to kasher a margarine facility to prepare it for pareve production.
One of the hazards in kosher production of pareve margarines is a process called rework. When a finished product does not meet specifications set forth by the quality department – it is not yellow enough, or it is not sufficiently crystallized – the margarine will be sent back so it can be reworked. Sometimes this is done automatically by a hard piping system, which moves the product back to the remelt tank. Otherwise the product is manually transported to that tank. In either case, a system must be devised to assure that no dairy based margarine gets “reworked” into pareve margarine. The mashgiach must be very alert to this as well.
With increasingly sophisticated food technology, and an easing of government regulations, it may be more and more difficult to distinguish margarine from butter. But it is simple to tell whether or not it’s kosher. Just look for the kosher symbol on the package, and enjoy.
Sidebar: Halachic Insights
Although margarine is a look-alike substitute for butter for the public consumer, the Jewish consumer should, of course, never confuse the two. Real butter is always dairy. Pareve margarine is often used by the Jewish homemaker precisely because it is pareve. However, it can also be made dairy. Many questions have come into the OU office because a homemaker used a dairy margarine when the intention was that it was pareve. Although the response to such shailos must be given by the local rav, the facts are as follows.
In most OU-D margarines, where it contains actual dairy, the amount of whey or milk solids is about 1.6% by weight. This translates into slightly more than 2% by volume, which means that the dairy is not batul. Thus, if the margarine was used as a liner on a meat pan, the pan liner would likely be rendered non-kosher. The status of the meat would have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
If the margarine was used as an ingredient in, for example, mashed potatoes or in a chicken or meat broth, the case could be made that the food is kosher since all the ingredients together nullify the amount of dairy in the original margarine.
The issue revolves around a concept known as ChaNaN (chaticha na’aseis neveilah) which states that a non-kosher product is considered to be 100% issur even if the non-kosher ingredient is only a few percent. If we apply ChaNaN in our case, the margarine is viewed as being 100% dairy, rather than just 2% dairy, and cannot be batel into the potatoes. At first glance it would appear that ChaNaN should not apply because Rema 94:6 rules that ChaNaN only applies to issur and not to dairy, which is heter/permitted. On the other hand, there are consumers who don’t eat chalav stam and some of them consider it to be issur to the extent that they would apply the rules of ChaNaN and forbid the potatoes. In this context, it is worth noting that Pri Megadim (S.D.) 97:1 and Igros Moshe Y.D. II:36 suggest that there is no ChaNaN on any milk produced nowadays – even in countries where the leniency of chalav stam doesn’t apply (or for those who don’t hold of that leniency). Consumers are encouraged to discuss this matter with their local Rabbi, if the situation arises.
In addition to the question raised above as to whether ChaNaN applies to chalav stam dairy products, there are other factors including whether the dairy absorbed into the equipment might be batel into the pareve margarine and whether those who only eats chalav yisroel follow that practice even for products that are only made on chalav stam equipment.