In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle sparked public revulsion toward the meat packing industry and lard in general. At about the same time, Procter & Gamble recognized that electric lights were hurting their candle business.
One of its chemists hydrogenated the cottonseed oil that was used to make the candles. The resulting fat resembled lard in both appearance and texture.
Procter & Gamble’s advertising department went to work, taking advantage of the revulsion that Sinclair’s novel had sparked.
Before the rise of the meat-packing industry (and railroads to distribute its products widely), people bought lard from local butchers. Farmers raised hogs with a high fat content because lard made them more money than lean pork.
There were three different grades of pork fat: leaf lard, which was an excellent shortening; fatback, which has too high a water content to be suitable for baking; and caul fat, softer still, more highly flavored, and used mostly for pâtés and larding lean cuts of meat.
(“Shortening,” by the way, is a fat added to pastry dough to keep the keep the strands of gluten from becoming too long. It results in a soft, crumbly dough.)
By the 1850s it became impossible to make enough lard by traditional methods, so manufacturers began to take shortcuts. They began to market an inferior lard with heavily processed cottonseed oil.
At first, companies added harder fats like beef tallow, but by the 1870s, cottonseed oil became abundant and cheap. It was red in color and smelled bad, but chemists developed processes for refining, bleaching, and deodorizing it.
The public would have rebelled if they had known that manufacturers were adding cheap vegetable oil to their lard. So manufacturers never let on. (That was long before federal labeling requirements.) They even marketed their adulterated product as “refined lard” to make seem like an advancement in quality.
By hydrogenating cotton seed oil, the Procter & Gamble chemist had made the first trans fat. It would take the better part of a century before other scientists discovered its unhealthy qualities.
Unlike the meat packing companies, Procter & Gamble made no attempt to hide the cottonseed oil in its new product. The very name Crisco is short for CRYStalised Cottonseed Oil.
In view of what Sinclair revealed about the meat packing industry and lard, the company had no trouble marketing Crisco as an inexpensive, wholesome substitute.
Procter & Gamble’s advertising campaign included the distribution of free cookbooks and the message that Crisco was healthier and safer than lard. Lard gradually became associated with rural people—both in their resistance to change and their poverty.
Margarine, another widespread transfat, didn’t have it so easy. French Emperor Napoleon III offered a prize for the creation of an edible synthetic fat. A rising standard of living and growing interest in personal hygiene increased the demand for soap. Meanwhile industry needed more and more lubricants. No one knew about petroleum yet. Western Europe suffered from a general shortage of fats and oils, and specifically a shortage of butter.
So in 1869 a French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés managed to make suet into a butter-like substance and flavored it with milk. He called it margarine.
A number of alternative patents came quickly, both in other European countries and the US. Within a decade, large-scale production of margarine had begun. To some, it seemed that butter could not withstand competition from this cheaper substitute.
Mège-Mouriés’ procedure, of course, does not resemble modern margarine. That requires the process of hydrogenating liquid vegetable oils, which had not yet been invented. I don’t know about his process, but hydrogenated vegetable oils do not go rancid at room temperature.
Of course. the dairy industry fought back. It denounced margarine as a harmful drug. In the US, it was heavily taxed, and stores had to obtain a special license to sell it. The federal government refused to purchase it for the military.
Some states did not permit manufacturers or retailers to dye it a buttery yellow. If consumers wanted yellow margarine, they had to purchase the dye separately and mix it themselves.
Butter rationing during the two world wars boosted the sale of margarine anyway. The federal government abolished its margarine tax in 1950. By 1967 even Wisconsin allowed the sale of yellow margarine.
We have lately discovered that trans fats, for all the reasons why they became popular, are unhealthy. Butter is still easily available. But do we have any lard that matches the quality of preindustrial lards?
It hardly matters. Nutritionists don’t approve of animal fats, either. The terms saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated, no longer chemical jargon, have entered every-day vocabulary.
Rightly or wrongly, we now perceive only liquid vegetable oils, and not all of those, to belong in a healthy diet. Industrial food still relies heavily on trans fats. One of my sources, after cataloging the evils of trans fats, suggested we need our own Upton Sinclair in our generation!
Please. Upton Sinclair proved very good at creating revulsion toward the meat packing industry. The public demanded reform, to be sure, but not what he had in mind at all.
Aided by ignorance of blood chemistry (and probably lack of curiosity as well) and a good marketing campaign, the public turned to the very substances we’re now trying to expel from our diets.
Maybe instead of another muckraker, we need a more measured and cautious approach. Maybe we need to cool the rhetoric, follow the best available science, and realize that science constantly changes.
According to conventional wisdom, for example, the human body has no dietary need for animal (saturated) fat. Is that really true? Stay tuned. And wait with patience, respect, and a small dose of skepticism about each new study while scientists argue among themselves.
When Lard Ruled the Kitchen: Upton Sinclair and the Rise of Crisco / Living Green Magazine. Link no longer works as of January 2017.
Lard, You Poor Dumb Bastard. What Have They Done to You? / Bubby’s
History of the French Pearl [margarine] / Web Exhibits