My grandmother used to prefer margarine to butter. Whether that was because she thought it was healthier or because she preferred the flavor, we’ll never know. Clearly, though, she hadn’t been paying attention to the federal government. After all, it had been working hard, even decades before she emigrated to the United States, to “protect” her.
As early as 1886, Washington took a hand in what Americans could, and supposedly should, eat. That year lawmakers passed the “Oleomaragerine Act” as a sop to the butter industry. Oleo was subject to a two-cent per pound tax, and anyone who aimed to make or sell the butter substitute was required to obtain a margarine license.
Eventually, 32 states would pass laws preventing margarine makers from coloring their product yellow, and the federal government chipped in with a higher tax on yellow margarine than on the white version.
According to the exhibit “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” at the National Archives, violators were subject to harsh penalties. It “includes the story of felons convicted of violating sections of the Oleomargarine Act and sent to the Federal prison at Leavenworth. Some tried to pass the margarine off as butter; others tried to evade the tax by reusing tax stamps again and again.”
The exhibit is funded, in what may be an ironic twist, “in part by Mars, Inc.” Keep in mind that, “The U.S. government has devotedly jacked up American sugar prices far above world market prices since the close of the War of 1812,” as author James Bovard noted in 1998. Last year, “the price per pound of raw sugar in the U.S. was 78 percent higher than the global price,” the CATO Institute reports.
Oddly, there’s nothing in the exhibit about how federal subsidies and tariffs have driven up the price of sugar, a crucial ingredient in Mars’ candy products, although it does mention sugar beets, which enjoyed some $242 million in federal subsidies through the early-2000s.
“What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” shows that the government has long been concerned about what Americans eat. W.O Atwater was the U.S. Department of Agriculture's first chief of nutrition investigations. The exhibit says he “concluded in 1890 that Americans eat too much fat and sweets and do not get enough exercise.” Some things, apparently, never change.