Tomatoes are red, margarine is yellow, and oranges, are, well, orange. We expect certain foods to be in certain colors. What we don’t realize is that these colors are not necessarily a product of nature but rather of historical controversies and deliberate decisions by various actors—including the government.
The story of how America’s federal government helped select specific colors for certain foods dates to late 19th century, when new processed foods were introduced. The color of margarine is a particularly powerful example of how the intersection of political power, industry competition, and regulation determined the look of what people ate.
When margarine was first introduced to the U.S. market in 1873 as a cheaper substitute for butter, dairy producers, fearful of intense competition and a price decline for butter, lobbied against the manufacturing and marketing of margarine. One favored way of limiting margarine was to restrict the color of margarine, so it would not look like butter.
By 1898, 26 states had regulated margarine under so-called “anti-color” laws, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of yellow-colored margarine (uncolored products were allowed). Other states went further: Vermont (1884), New Hampshire (1891), and South Dakota (1891) passed laws that required margarine to be colored pink.
Margarine color wasn’t just a matter for the states to decide. The federal government enacted the first national margarine legislation in 1886. The Oleomargarine Act permitted the addition of color to margarine but restricted margarine production and sale by levying a tax of two cents per pound on margarine whether it was colored or uncolored. The act proved ineffective, however, because inspection took time and money. And that was more than state inspectors could manage, according to the Sixteenth Annual Report of the Michigan Dairymen’s Association, published in 1900.