Why do people go to awkward lengths to call butter substitutes by their brand names? (would you like butter or Flora, luv, in yer baked potato?)

I presume they are all technically margarine (which as far as I know was never a brand). So why do we not use the word margarine, as my parents did in 1948?

In the late 1940s it was probably a matter of some embarrassment to say you ate margarine, as it may have indicated you were poor or (in Britain) did not have enough ration coupons to buy butter.

But nowadays when people prefer it for health reasons, why is there not a satisfactory and generic name for it? I am constantly aware that people, in restaurants, shops etc are fishing around for what to call it.

  • 3
    Cognitive dissonance. People couldn't stand the soft g before an a.
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 18, 2015 at 0:54
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    My first impression is that, with a vast array of margarine varieties to choose from, each with potentially huge variations from other brands, the specific naming has become a necessity. Butter has suffered comparably little change (compared to margarine); the single word suffices. Margarine, however, might be made of various oils and other extras that, if someone is to choose between two options, the brand of the margarine in question is the key to making a meaningful decision. One who prefers 'good' margarine over butter might choose butter over 'bad' margarine for the same reasons. Feb 18, 2015 at 1:17
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    Basically, "margarine" sounds second-class, so everyone markets a branded "spread" of one sort or another. It's just typical marketing.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 18, 2015 at 1:20
  • My grandmother told me that when "oleo" first came out is was much oilier and greasier than today. To her generation, "margarine" evokes "cheap, greasy, and fake".
    – Mike
    Feb 18, 2015 at 3:32
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    – Andrew Leach
    Feb 19, 2015 at 12:40

4 Answers 4


At least in the United States, margarine actually is considered to have a terrible health profile (full of carcinogenic trans fats), and no company that wanted to sell any of its spread at all would refer to it as margarine.

  • 2
    That may be true, but I see vegetable oil spreads being labeled as "margarine" every time I go shopping. I won't eat the junk, unless actual butter isn't available. Feb 18, 2015 at 1:30
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    It's worth noting that until a few years ago margarine was considered a healthy alternative to butter.
    – Robusto
    Feb 18, 2015 at 2:11
  • @Cyberherbalist In Britain you never see the word margarine on anything any more. And it is only people like me, whose first tastes were taken in the 1940s who still use the word generically to mean non-butter. The population at large is confused about what, generically, to call the various things on offer. We eat a thing called PURE, which comes in two varieties, Olive Oil and Soya. But since it is an emulsified fat I call it margarine.
    – WS2
    Feb 18, 2015 at 7:49

Part of the answer is in your question: Those of us who had older relatives who were scarred by the stigma of being too poor to afford butter, were taught that margarine was "low class".

The main reason was touched on by Hot Licks' comment: Advertisers have turned food into fashion. As it's not a "handbag", it's a "Coach" bag; those aren't "sneakers", they're "New Balance cross-training shoes", "margarine" is too generic a word for the myriad, proprietary concoctions (with fancy names) that protect people from admitting that someone in their family was poor at one time, and managed to develop (and pass on) a taste for the stuff.

  • 3
    I certainly don't know anyone in Britain who would be ashamed to admit to having eaten margarine. After all my generation can remember food rationing, when even the royal family were said to have restricted themselves to rations, eaten from the finest Chinaware. I do agree with what you say. But I think it is a pity and personally I insist on calling it 'margarine'. But then I often refer to 'trainers' as 'plimsolls' just to annoy people.
    – WS2
    Feb 18, 2015 at 13:08
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    See now, that's where the Brits show class. In American culture it is rare for someone to miss an opportunity to point out what they got, that you ain't. (We are still known as crass and boorish in the rest of the world, aren't we?)
    – Oldbag
    Feb 18, 2015 at 16:16
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    Well, some of you might be!
    – WS2
    Feb 18, 2015 at 17:44
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    @WS2 +1 for plimsolls :) Sep 29, 2015 at 7:33
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    This must be a uniquely American thing. I grew up poor, and never tasted butter until I entered the military in the early 70s. In Latin American we still call it margarina. And I use it every week when I am baking. Jan 4, 2018 at 19:44

Margarine, by its official definition, has to contain at least 80% fat, according to Flora:

Margarine must have a fat content of 80% or more (similar to butter). So spreads are similar to margarines, but with less fat. This is why Flora is called a spread – it contains less fat than margarine.

So the simple answer is probably that most spreads nowadays are too “healthy” (or at least don’t contain enough fat) to fall under the definition of “margarine”.

I have a tub of “Tesco British Spreadable” that contains 11% fat and 15% saturates, falling woefully short of the standard for margarine. Evidently companies are still struggling to come up with an actual noun to describe it, falling back on adjectives instead.

  • 1
    There's also an increase in blended spreads which contain different kinds of fats in varying proportions, e.g. butter with added oil to make it softer, margarine with butter or olive oil added for flavour, etc. It doesn't make sense to call them "margarine" or "butter". Hence the more generic "spread".
    – Stuart F
    Aug 24, 2023 at 12:50

I think that producers have been trying to find more appealing names that could be associated with a product ( margarine) that was no longer what it used to be, especially from the point of view of healthfulness:

  • In the mid-1960s, the introduction of two lower-fat blends of butter oil and vegetable oils in Scandinavia, called Lätt & Lagom and Bregott, clouded the issue of what should be called "margarine" and began the debate that led to the introduction of the term "spread".

  • In 1978, an 80% fat product called krona, made by churning a blend of dairy cream and vegetable oils, was introduced in Europe and, in 1982, a blend of cream and vegetable oils called clover was introduced in the UK by the Milk Marketing Board. The vegetable oil and cream spread I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! was introduced into the United States in 1981 and in the United Kingdom and Canada in 1991.

  • In recent decades, margarine spreads have gone through many developments in efforts to improve their healthfulness. Most brands have phased out the use of hydrogenated oils, and are now also trans fat free. Many brands have launched refrigerator-stable margarine spreads that contain only 1/3 of the fat and calorie content of traditional spreads. Other varieties of spreads include those with added Omega-3 fatty acids, those with low or no salt, those with added plant sterols, claimed to reduce blood cholesterol, and some made from olive oil or certified vegan oils. ( Wikipedia)

  • +1 for the research but this proves why we need a generic term for what you spread on bread. And since the technical name margarine still largely applies, why not that?
    – WS2
    Feb 18, 2015 at 7:59
  • Well, as shown in the brief story I posted, margarine was not actually that healthy in its original version, so marketing strategies decided to move forward creating distinct branded products not to be confufed with a general one like margarine used to be.
    – user66974
    Feb 18, 2015 at 8:04
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    Yes, the name margarine has an OED example from as early as 1873: U.S. Patent 146012 2/1 In all cases the oleo margarine is separated from the stearine. When it is cold..it constitutes..a greasy matter of very good taste, and which may replace the butter in the kitchen, where it is employed under the name of ‘margarine’. *The French word has one from 1821!*1821 A. Ure Dict. Chem. at Acid, A substance of a peculiar kind, that M. Chevreul, the discoverer, calls margarine, or margaric acid. Notwithstanding all that it was clearly WW2, and butter shortages, that launched it big.
    – WS2
    Feb 18, 2015 at 9:39
  • 1
    M. Chevreul appears to have coined the word in 1812, from what I've found, albeit, only in French publications. It is used in English from 1814. Sep 29, 2015 at 7:51

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