What Is Oleo In Baking?

If you have ever looked through an old recipe book for baking ideas, you may have come across something called ‘oleo.’

And, no, it’s not a misspelling or Oreo as many believe. As soon as you dig a little deeper into what oleo is, you’ll be quite surprised that it was used in so many recipes that our grandmothers once used.

Oleo is actually short for ‘oleomargarine.’ This is a butter substitute that you will commonly find in your local grocery store.

Although easy to find, oleo is not as widely used as it once was.

Whilst it was once used in many baking recipes, this dairy product has become quite foreign to modern day home bakers.

Yes, times change, but recipes usually remain the same. But, now and again, those vintage recipes contain certain ingredients that have since been found to be unhealthy.

If you want to know more about oleo, you’re in the right place.

In today’s post, we are going to guide you through a brief history about oleo, discuss its taste and texture, the best substitute for it, and much, much more.

Oleo: A Butter Substitute

Oleo is essentially another word for margarine or oleomargarine. While it is still used in some recipes today, it is certainly not as common as it once was.

So, what exactly is margarine? Well, margarine is basically a butter substitute, made out of water, salt, and vegetable oils.

In most cases, the oil in margarine has to go through a chemical change known as hydrogenation to transform it into a solid.

But, this is the simple part of the margarine-making process and how oleo is made.

During the hydrogenation process, additional atoms of hydrogenation are transferred into unsaturated fat. Here, the trans fatty acid is created before becoming saturated fat.

This process mitigates any benefits that the mixture had as a polyunsaturate.

In other words, margarine is basically a fake kind of butter. To make it taste more like butter, milk, cream, and further food additives are added.

Think of, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,’ and this is the same concept.

All in all, the FDA (CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (fda.gov) states that margarine must have 80% fat and contain only safe ingredients for consumption.

As for oleo margarine, this is made from vegetable oil but is low in saturated fat and is cholesterol free.

Because of its hydrogenation process, oleo can be solid at room temperature, high in trans fats, and has low levels of good cholesterol.

It is actually thought to increase bad cholesterol levels. Starting to see why it isn’t so popular anymore?

Oleo Brief History

In 1869, France was at war with certain German states, led by Prussia. This led to a rise in the cost of butter.

To make it more affordable, Emperor Napoleon III held a competition to find the most accessible, and cheapest alternative to butter.

Hippolyte Mege-Mouries, a French chemist, won with his invention of oleomargarine.

Using the process of hydrogenation, Hippolyte named his new-found food and became a very rich man.

Before long, oleomargarine swept through Europe with huge popularity and became a staple in many households during World War ii.

But, it wasn’t so popular in the U.S. due to a shift from an agricultural economy to a more industrial one.

This led to The Oleomargarine ACT of 1886 where a tax of two cents was imposed for every pound of oleo used. This continued until 1950.

Oleo was banned completely in places like Wisconsin, especially that with yellow food coloring, as it was too close to butter.

This is why people began selling pink oleo, to get around the ban. Bring on more pink oleo!

Oleo Vs Butter

The taste and texture of oleo is designed to be a cheap substitute for butter. However, its makeup is very different.

Dairy farmers make real butter from dairy, whilst fake butter, such as oleo, is made mostly from plant based oils.

When entirely made from plant based oils, oleo contains no cholesterol and is low in saturated fats. But, it does contain fatty acids and a great deal of trans fat.

Both butter and oleo tend to have yellow coloring, but food coloring is added to oleo, whereas yellow is butter’s natural color.

Let’s compare the nutritional value of both butter and oleo below:

Unsalted Butter (14.2 g)

  • 102 calories
  • 11.5 g of fat
  • 7.17 g of saturated fat
  • 30.5 milligrams of cholesterol
  • 0 g of carbohydrates
  • 0 g of sugar

Unsalted Oleomargarine (14.2 g)

  • 102 calories
  • 11.5 g of fat
  • 2.16 g of saturated fat
  • 0 g of cholesterol
  • 0 g of carbohydrates
  • 0 g of sugar

For every tablespoon, margarine-like spreads tend to contain:

  • 50 calories
  • 5.42 g of fat
  • 0.67 g of saturated fat
  • 0 g of trans fatty acids
  • 0 g of cholesterol
  • 0.79 g of carbohydrates
  • 0 g of sugar

As you can see, oleo has high saturated fat levels, which can lead to heart disease if consumed too often.

For thousands of years, butter has been made from churning milk. Margarine, however, is very new in comparison, and this highly processed food has not been a welcome invention in the dairy industry.

During the 1970s, butter was associated with heart disease. That is why people were told to limit how much butter they ate.

Therefore, people began to buy margarine and started cooking it themselves as an alternative to butter. But, in recent years, studies have found that margarine may not be as healthy as first thought.

In 2015, trans fats in processed foods were banned by the FDA. That is why the majority of margarine, like oleo, are now made with plant-based oils, and are richer in healthier fats.

In Summary

Oleo has been used as a substitute for butter over the last century or so.

Its early days allowed chemists to experiment with all kinds of ingredients, such as margaric acid, oleic acid, and stearic acid, to find how the chemical transformation would result in a tasty butter alternative.

Today, oleo is not used as much, but is still available. Check out many old family recipes and you’ll see that, although considered bad today, oleo was once a popular ingredient.

Picture of Kathryn Sewell

Kathryn Sewell

Hi! I'm Kate and I have been baking and cooking for as long as I can remember. I like to share the most interesting tips and recipes I try here on What Kate Baked for you to enjoy. If you have a favorite recipe you'd like to share send it over on social.

About the Author