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Potion or poison? New exhibition on the turbulent history of margarine

Fat — Danes used to have the world record in eating it. It was the slayer of the blue whale. It possibly killed even more humans. And it was a harbinger of our times. Medical Museion now has a exhibition on margarine.

Seven binders are displayed behind a display case at the Medical Museion. Plastic folders are lined up, packed with old packaging from various prefabricated cakes and cookies from countries in the east: Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan.

The binders are part of the newly opened exhibition MARGARINE at Medical Museion, and are actually also the reason why the exhibition is here in the first place.

»At first I thought, it’s fine to have a hobby: But what does this have to do with us?« says Malthe Kouassi Bjerregaard. He is curator at the Medical Museion — a museum affiliated with the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) — and remembers the call he got that ended up being an exhibition after a good year of preparation.

The call didn’t just come from a happy cake collector. It was from a UCPH-affiliated professor Steen Stender. He has – for professional purposes – been a collector of cake wrapping paper, in folder after folder, country after country. The cake wrap is a part of the story of the harmful trans fats, or trans-unsaturated fatty acids, which have been banned in Denmark since 2004, but that until then were found in lots of things, including margarine.

The bad and the really bad

»I’m a little bit surprised about the interest that they showed in the project here,« Steen Stender said, when the University Post met him in a meeting room at Medical Museion.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Steen Stender was one of the driving forces behind a ban on trans fats. As a member of the first Danish Nutrition Council and later chairman of the council’s working group on saturated fats, he acquired an in-depth knowledge of the harmful fats.

The discovery of the harmful effects of trans fats revolutionized what we knew about fats: Until then, the marked increase in cardiac deaths that had been seen since WW2 had been attributed to an increased intake of saturated fatty acids, which are found in butter. In fact, the Danish Heart Association, explicitly recommended margarine rather than butter.


Trans fats are a group of unsaturated fatty acids with a special kind of double bonds that significantly increase the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. It is more harmful than saturated fat, which dietary guidelines also recommend that we only consume in limited quantities.

Cake wrap and opera

Steen Stender is now 80 years old. And it was in connection with the move to a smaller office at the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports that he decided to contact Medical Museion in order to get rid of his excess binders.

»The binders contain 5,000 pieces of cake wrappings, because that’s the number that I’ve examined,« Steen Stender says.

In the wake of the Danish ban, Steen Stender became a popular global speaker. And he quickly discovered that he got the audience more engaged if he could come up with local examples of products that were rich in transfats. He therefore turned it into a habit to get cake samples beforehand in each country that he could get analyzed.

»Sometimes I had my wife with me as an assistant, and we would start at opposite ends of a supermarket and examine the ingredient lists with a magnifying glass. Then we’d go to the opera in the evening. I don’t know much about music, but my wife does. So it was a kind of reward for her good work,« Steen Stender remembers.

Steen Stender’s efforts abroad may have borne fruit: More and more countries introduced restrictions on the use of trans fats in food. In 2018, the WHO decided to initiate a project to remove saturated fat from food in all countries throughout the world. And in 2021, EU introduced legislation similar to the Danish legislation.

A greasy piece of cultural history

The history of trans fatty acids has its own section in the exhibition MARGARINE, because the special variant of unsaturated fat was found in a lot of margarine and many prefabricated products like cakes, biscuits and chocolates.

»It can be difficult to build an exhibition around the science of public health, because it’s often about large cohort studies. The binders were very tangible,« says Malthe Kouassi Bjerregaard.

But the exhibition has ended up being about more than trans fats and public health science in the narrow sense. As the museum team delved deeper and deeper into the history of the pale yellow matter, it became clear that the fat was concealing a number of other stories.

In the Medical Museion’s own collection, they discovered a number of colour charts used to check the colour of margarine. When margarine was launched as an alternative to butter at the end of the 19th century – in fact, margarine was known as artificial butter for a number of years – strict rules were introduced in Denmark on how much it could resemble butter. Going beyond the prescribed colour nuance could trigger both fines and imprisonment for the guilty margarine producer. Some manufacturers would not let themselves be held back however. They sold colouring as a side product, so customers could mix themselves a nice shade of yellow at home.

The story of how Norwegians preyed on the globe’s blue whale population in search of cheap materials for margarine, has also found its way to the MARGARINE exhibition. It turned out that the liver oil from blue whales could easily be used in the production of margarine along with other types of fat such as palm oil and sunflower oil. In this sense, margarine was, and still is, convenient to produce: It is made artificially by way of chemistry, and can consist of many different things. This is what has made it a cheap alternative to butter. It was cheaper to hunt blue whales than produce butter.

Unfortunately for the whales: The hunt was so intensive that the world’s blue whale stock was brought down to a point where the species was endangered.

Unanswered questions

Steen Stender has reached an age where he, in his own words, should »wind up a few projects« and perhaps also take stock. Behind him, he has a career as a consultant at Gentofte Hospital, and as a specialist in clinical biochemistry, where he helped to significantly increase the efficiency of blood test results. This was all in addition to his work with trans fats.

Trans fats are »a finished chapter for him« – nine grandchildren and a newly discovered interest in birdwatching takes up more of his time. But you don’t have to talk to him for a long time before you sense that he is not completely done with trans fats.

Steen Stender retrieves a graph from a folder. It is a study conducted by a US university comparing the number of cardiac deaths in Denmark after the trans fat ban with a hypothetical projection of the number of cardiac deaths without the ban. You can see, just as it was hoped and expected, a decrease in mortality corresponding to approximately 700 deaths annually.

But is trans fat the whole explanation? Steen Stender would like to get to the bottom of this. He would like to examine whether the increase in heart disease around the 1900s correlates with the introduction of trans fats. Because, as he says, »can such a small amount of fat make such a big difference?«

»We know it’s a bit silly«

MARGARINE is not a big exhibition – only two rooms are dedicated to the fat – but for the museum it is still a gamble. An exhibition here normally takes its point of departure from the body, a researcher, or a discovery. This exhibition is a bit off the mark.

»We know it’s a bit silly,« says Malthe Kouassi Bjerregaard, as he shows the exhibition’s perhaps most artistic element: A video installation that transforms the viewer into a pearly white sculpture of margarine.

As the exhibition wants to illustrate, margarine is a prism through which our own ideals of health, beauty and taste become more visible. Depending on your age and cultural origin, you may have learned that margarine is the healthy choice. Or that it is dangerous, even though there are no dangerous amounts of trans fats in the margarine you buy today. That it is the only thing that works in pastry. That it is, after all, something to look down on as somehow inferior.