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MotherBee's food Science Talk - Is Margarine one molecule away from being plastic?

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

Margarine one molecule away from being plastic
Margarine one molecule away from being plastic

Debunking the Myth: Is Margarine Just One Molecule Away from Becoming Plastic?

In the world of food and science, myths and misconceptions often swirl around, creating confusion and misinformation. One such myth involves margarine, with claims that it’s just one molecule away from becoming plastic. In this blog post, we’ll debunk this myth and explore the differences between margarine, butter, plastic, and mayonnaise. We’ll delve into their ingredients, production processes, and even their chemical structures to set the record straight.

Margarine: is a type of fat used as a butter substitute in cooking and baking. Its chemical structure is different from plastic.

  • Ingredients: Margarine primarily consists of vegetable oils like soybean or canola oil. It goes through a process called hydrogenation to solidify at room temperature. Emulsifiers and flavorings are also added.

  • Chemical structure of a typical fatty acid in margarine would look like this:

  • Primary composition of margarine is fats made up of glycerol molecules and various fatty acids. It’s quite different from the polymer-based structure of plastics.

  • Production Process: Hydrogenation alters the oils’ molecular structure to make them solid. Emulsifiers are used to create a stable, creamy texture.

Butter: Butter is primarily composed of fats, similar to margarine.

  • Ingredients: Butter is made from cream, specifically the fat in cream. It may contain salt for flavor.

  • Production Process: Cream is separated from milk and churned to separate the fat from the liquid. It’s a natural dairy product.

  • Chemical Structure: It primarily contains saturated and unsaturated fats.

  • The main fats in butter are triglycerides, which consist of glycerol molecules bonded to three fatty acid chains. The specific chemical structure of these fatty acids can vary depending on the source of the butter (e.g., cow’s milk, goat’s milk).

  • A simplified representation of a common fatty acid found in butter, such as palmitic acid, looks like this:

  • This structure represents a saturated fatty acid, which is a component of butter.

  • It’s important to note that butter contains a mixture of various fatty acids, both saturated and unsaturated, which contribute to its unique flavor and texture.

Plastic: The term “plastic” originally derived from the Greek word “plastikos,” meaning “capable of being shaped or molded,” indeed describes the characteristic of plastic materials. These materials can be molded into various forms when heated, which is a fundamental property of plastics.

However, it’s important to note that the term “plastic” as used in the context of materials has evolved beyond its linguistic origins. Plastics, in modern industrial terms, refer to a specific group of synthetic or semi-synthetic polymers. These polymers are derived from petrochemicals, specifically hydrocarbons found in crude oil.

While the word’s original meaning highlights its malleability, the materials known as plastics today encompass a wide range of substances with diverse properties. Plastics are used in various industries, including food, due to their versatility, durability, and ease of shaping into desired forms. So, while the name “plastic” may reflect its ancient root, the materials themselves have developed into a complex and crucial part of modern life.

Plastic in context of material a synthetic material made from polymers, and its composition can vary depending on the type of plastic. However, a common plastic like polyethylene (used in items like plastic bags) is composed mainly of carbon and hydrogen atoms. These atoms form long chains, creating the polymer structure. Other elements and additives may be present in plastics to give them specific properties, but the fundamental composition is carbon and hydrogen.

  • Plastic Ingredients: Plastic is derived from petrochemicals, specifically hydrocarbons found in crude oil.

  • Production Process: Petrochemicals like ethylene and propylene undergo polymerization to form long chains of molecules called polymers. Various additives are mixed in for specific properties.

  • Chemical Structure: It’s composed of polymers created from hydrocarbons, with no resemblance to food fats.

  • The chemical structure of plastic can vary widely depending on the type of plastic. However, one common plastic, like polyethylene, has a relatively simple chemical structure. Polyethylene consists of long chains of carbon atoms (C) with hydrogen atoms (H) attached to them. The repeating unit in the polymer chain looks like this:

  • This basic unit, “-CH2-CH2-,” repeats thousands of times in the polymer chain, creating the structure of polyethylene.

  • Keep in mind that there are many different types of plastics, each with its own unique chemical structure and properties.

  • Plastic is derived from petrochemicals, which are compounds derived from petroleum or crude oil. Here’s a simplified overview of how plastic is made:

  • Crude Oil Extraction: The process begins with the extraction of crude oil from underground reservoirs. Crude oil is a mixture of hydrocarbons.

  • Refining: Crude oil is then refined in oil refineries to separate it into various components, including fractions called “naphtha” or “petroleum naphtha.”

  • Cracking: Naphtha is further processed through a refining technique called “cracking,” which breaks down the hydrocarbons into simpler molecules, including ethylene and propylene.

  • Polymerization: Ethylene and propylene, which are the building blocks for many types of plastics, undergo a chemical process called polymerization. This process involves linking these small molecules together to form long chains, creating polymers.

  • Additives: Various additives, such as plasticizers, stabilizers, colorants, and fillers, are mixed with the polymers to give the plastic its desired properties.

  • Processing: The resulting plastic resin is then shaped into various forms, such as sheets, pellets, or fibers, through processes like extrusion or molding.

  • Final Products: These plastic materials are used to manufacture a wide range of products, from plastic bottles to car parts and packaging materials.


Ingredients: Mayonnaise includes egg yolks, oil, vinegar or lemon juice, and seasonings.

  • Production Process: Egg yolks act as an emulsifier. Oil is slowly added while stirring to create a stable emulsion. Vinegar or lemon juice and seasonings are incorporated for flavor.

  • Chemical Structure: The key to mayonnaise is the emulsion of oil in water, maintained by the egg yolks.

  • Mayonnaise doesn’t have a single chemical structure because it’s an emulsion, which is a mixture of two immiscible liquids, typically oil and water. The key to mayonnaise is the emulsification of these two components, which is maintained by the presence of egg yolks and other emulsifiers.

  • However, a simplified representation of one of the key components in mayonnaise, which is the fatty acid found in the oil used to make it. A common fatty acid found in vegetable oil used for mayonnaise is oleic acid, and its chemical structure looks like this CH3(CH2)7CH=CH(CH2)7COOH

  • This structure represents a monounsaturated fatty acid, which is one of the components in the oil used to make mayonnaise.

  • Remember, mayonnaise is a complex mixture, and its overall chemical structure is a combination of various components, including water, oil, emulsifiers, acids (from vinegar or lemon juice), and seasonings.

  • The process of making margarine is more similar to the process of making mayonnaise compared to the process of making plastic. Both margarine and mayonnaise are emulsions, which means they involve mixing two immiscible liquids (usually oil and water) to create a stable, creamy texture.

  • Mayonnaise Production:

  • In both cases, the goal is to create a stable emulsion with a creamy consistency. So, the process of making margarine is indeed more closely related to making mayonnaise than it is to the process of making plastic.


The idea that margarine is just one molecule away from becoming plastic is a misconception. Margarine is made from vegetable oils and is fundamentally different from plastics derived from petrochemicals. Butter is a natural dairy product, and mayonnaise is an emulsion of oil and water with egg yolks as the key ingredient.

Understanding the ingredients, production processes, and chemical structures of these products helps dispel myths and ensures that we have accurate information about the foods we consume. So, the next time someone mentions the margarine-plastic myth, you can confidently debunk it with the knowledge you’ve gained here.

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