Yellow or white margarine? The tedious legal battle over butter-colored margarine, and how people had to dye it themselves

Margarine - Just knead the bag to make it yellow

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Starting around the end of the 19th century, there was a war fought not with guns and sharp knives, but with food coloring and butter knives. It was the great battle of Butter vs Margarine: White margarine vs yellow margarine.

By the time the 1940s rolled around, the colored margarine fight had been going for decades. In 1948, when the newspaper article below was written, only one percent of grocers nationwide were legally allowed to sell margarine that was colored yellow — and only half of the stores in the country were allowed to sell margarine at all. (See the story below for the reasons behind the conflict.)

As you can also see below, some savvy manufacturers went the extra mile to abide by the law while also giving consumers what they wanted — yellow margarine, that looked more like butter and less like lard.

Yellow margarine with dye pack - How to (1947)
How to make margarine dyed yellow in 1947

They created built-in food coloring packets or yellow color tablets that could be added to the fatty blend, because in most states, it was okay for people to have colored margarine… they just couldn’t buy it like that. (Delrich had the E-Z Color Pak with a “color berry” — a margarine yellow dye capsule — Parkay’s version was the Color-Kwik bag.)

The situation took many more years to resolve, and it wasn’t until 1967 that the last uncolored margarine rule — in the dairy-centric state of Wisconsin — was finally scratched.

Nucoa Margarine with Color wafer to make it yellow (1946)
Nucoa vegetable Oleomargarine with Color Wafer to make it yellow (1946)

Mix your own colored margarine! How to legally turn it from white to yellow with a margarine yellow dye capsule (1948)

Delicious Delrich E-Z Color Pak margarine ends mixing bowl mess!

  1. Pinch color berry
  2. Knead the bag.

Mix your own colored margarine! How to legally turn it from white to yellow

Yes, Margarine – Good, good, good! (1947)

You know you save when you choose margarine. Know also the answers to questions like these.

Why do youngsters like it? Because children judge foods by taste and appearance. Your youngsters — yes, all youngsters — really go for the sweet, fresh, natural flavor of modern margarine.

Why can’t I buy it ready-colored? Because of an old Federal tax of 10c a pound on colored margarine. Besides, many states either bar the sale of colored margarine or put extra, heavy taxes on it.

What about its food values? Margarine is top rank as an energy food. It is highly digestible. And it is a uniformly dependable supplier of essential Vitamin A, month in and month out.

Can I use it for cooking, too? Yes, margarine’s rich, fresh flavor is just as good in sauces, in cakes, or as a seasoning on vegetables as it is when you spread it on bread, toast or biscuits.

Margarine color - Yellow ad from 1947

WHY THIS PAGE IS YELLOW — It is so you will again ask yourself, “Why can’t I get margarine ready-colored yellow the way I want it?”

In fact, this yellow color is to remind you that horse-and-buggy legislation dating hack to 1886, through heavy taxation and license fees, restricts the sale of margarine colored by the manufacturer. No other food is so penalized and discriminated against.


Yellow margarine battle joined (1948)

From the Ozark News (St Clair, Missouri) – April 1, 1948

The 60-year-old battle between the dairy industry and the manufacturers of margarine appears about to be joined in this session of Congress.

Nineteen bills now are pending seeking to end or lower federal taxes on margarine.

Real nub of the contention is one of color, for that is the real import of the margarine lobby to repeal the tax of 10 cents a pound and federal licenses on colored margarine.

The dairy industry declares that if this is done, it will open the way to fraudulent sale of margarine as butter; that market for 40 percent of milk produced could be destroyed; that the claim that fortified margarine is scientifically equivalent to butter is open to question and that the question comes down to a fight between three million farmers trying to survive and a few large corporations seeking large profits.

On the other side, the margarine association admits that in early days back in the 1890s, there was some attempt at fraudulent sale of margarine, but pure food and drug laws now make that impossible; that tax repeal would open larger market for cotton seed and soybean oil; that natural color of margarine is yellow and manufacturers must bleach it to make it white…

…that margarine is nutritionally equivalent to butter; that color is added to butter; that if margarine is bad it should be prohibited, not regulated; that the dairy industry is unable to meet demand for butter; that the tax is discriminatory and prevents low-income groups from obtaining a cheap food; and that the treasury department itself admits that the tax should be repealed.

Vintage Nucoa margarine (1951)
Vintage yellow Nucoa Oleomargarine ad from 1951 – In the yellow square above the package, it says, “In those 8 states where the sale of yellow margarine is still prohibited, get fresh, rich Nucoa in handy Measure-Pak.” (Also see A collection of classic Christmas cookies from the 50s)

But even if federal tax is repealed, the margarine industry has a long way to go, because in 23 states, sale of colored margarine is prohibited; 11 states bar use of margarine in state institutions; in only 18 states are there no local restrictions, most of them in the cotton-producing South.

Only half of the 500,000 retail grocers have licenses to sell uncolored margarine, and only 1 percent are licensed to sell colored margarine; 13 states require annual licenses for margarine wholesalers.

11 impose annual retail licenses; nine require annual manufacturers license; seven states tax each pound of uncolored margarine; four states tax colored margarine 10 cents a pound, and four states require annual licenses for eating places serving margarine.

Delrich E-Z Color Pak margarine

“Honestly — you feel like telling the world about Delrich once you taste its creamy, golden goodness!”

So easy to color, too! 1. Pinch color berry. 2. Knead the bag. 3. Reshape bag by placing in carton. Chill. (No mold needed. No waste.) 4. Slice as needed. Makes neat servings in quarters or patties.

colored margarine

ALSO SEE: How to make a perfect old-fashioned spice cake

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. I remember my grandmother talking about having to mix colors into margarine, which she always called “Oleo”. And it might have been an urban legend, but I once heard how some dairy states required margarine to be colored BLACK…

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