Cover art for podcast Distillations | Science History Institute

Distillations | Science History Institute

294 EpisodesProduced by Science History InstituteWebsite

Each episode of Distillations podcast takes a deep-dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed light on the present.


Butter vs. Margarine: one of America's most bizarre food battles

It’s one of the most bizarre episodes in American food history: when butter and margarine were at war. What you choose to spread on your toast might seem like a boring subject, but it turns out to be fascinating and sometimes hilarious. Margarine’s history began with French emperor Napoleon III, a French chemist, and some sheep’s stomachs, and went on to include heated courtroom debates, our first federal laws regulating food, and outlaws smuggling faux butter across state lines.

The spreads have competed for more than a hundred years, and public preferences shift each time our understanding of health science changes. In this episode of Distillations we learn about the history of butter and margarine and explore the distinctly American debates they inspired involving food, health, science, and regulation.


Hosts: Elisabeth Berry Drago and Alexis Pedrick Producer: Mariel Carr Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez Audio Engineer: Catherine Girardeau

Reading for this episode:

The Dairy Crisis: Letters From Our Readers, The Wisconsin Magazine of History: The “Oleo Wars”: Wisconsin’s Fight Over the Demon Spread, The Wisconsin Magazine of History: Bogus Butter: An Analysis of the 1886 Congressional Debates on Oleomargarine Legislation: “If It’s Yellow, It Must be Butter”: Margarine Regulation in North America Since 1886, The Journal of Economic History: What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The National Archives Foundation:

Special thanks to our voiceover artists, Hillary MohauptRoger Eardley-Pryor, and Sarah Reisert


Our theme music was composed by Zach Young.


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