Imperial is a brand that puts out a popular buttery-tasting spread. It’s not technically considered margarine (more on that later). While most folks know that margarine and butter-like spreads are derived from plant oils, fewer seem to be aware that many can still contain dairy derivatives. So, congratulations on being astute enough to do your research.
Is it vegan? No, Imperial margarine is not vegan. While it contains vegetable oils instead of milk fat, it also lists whey in the ingredients.1 Whey is a protein that’s only found in milk, so it’s always dairy-based and thus always non-vegan.
What we’ll do here is look at the various reasons Imperial margarine is unsuitable for 100% plant-based eaters.
Why Imperial Margarine Is Non-Vegan
The ingredients include:1
- Vegetable Oil (Soybean, Palm, and Palm Kernel Oils)
- Water, Salt
- Whey (Milk)
- Emulsifiers (Mono- and Diglycerides, Soy Lecithin)
- Potassium Sorbate and Calcium Disodium EDTA (to Protect Quality)
- Citric Acid
- Artificial Flavor
- Vitamin A Palmitate (Fortification) and Beta Carotene (for Color)
So, if manufacturers went through the trouble of making a plant-based butter substitute, why on earth would they go ahead and throw in milk products?
Well, it turns out milk has several useful properties to contribute when it comes to making processed food products.
For example, the milk sugar, lactose, is used in bread products because it browns baked goods. It’s also used for this reason to manufacture confectionery and frozen desserts.
On that note, lactose is apparently found in some margarine, though I’ve yet to run across it myself.2
The two main proteins in milk are casein and whey, which make up 80% and 20% of the proteins in milk, respectively.3
These two proteins are commonly added to processed foods to improve their nutritive value. Both whey and casein contribute to emulsifying and stabilizing ingredients, while whey helps with texture and gelling.4,5
Overall, milk is used in the food industry to boost protein content, mixing ability, moisture, foaming, flavor, and texture.4
Don’t get me wrong, not all margarine and butter-like spreads contain dairy products. In fact, I’d say margarine is characteristically vegan-friendly. I.e. most of the labels I run across these days don’t contain dairy in any form.
That’s just my own personal experience—I don’t have any stats on that.
But, you will run across dairy in butter-like spreads from time to time and Imperial is one such example.
It contains whey as the sole dairy ingredient—no milk fat, casein, or lactose.
Whey protein can be used for a number of reasons.
A more comprehensive list of its uses include:
- As a food thickener/gelling agent.5
- A food stabilizer and emulsifier.6
- A fat or dairy replacer.7
- In edible films and coatings.9
For the most part, whey is probably used in margarine to stabilize the w/o emulsion (w/o stands for water-in-oil).
A large variety of foods qualify as emulsions, from milk itself to condiments, dressings, ice cream, and even sausages.10
Oil/water emulsions are inherently unstable, which reduces shelf-life.11-13
One reason margarine is preferred over butter is that it has a longer shelf-life—it doesn’t go rancid as easily. The emulsifying properties of whey allow it to contribute to the longevity of margarine. It does this not by preventing rancidity, but by preventing the separation of fat and water, two ingredients that would prefer to remain separate.
Other Potentially Problematic Ingredients
These ingredients don’t render a food product non-vegan by most standards. But, especially prudent vegans like to restrict their intake of certain additives that can be vegan if sourced from x, or animal-based if sourced from y.
Take glycerides for example. Like all emulsions, Imperial margarine contains emulsifiers (in addition to the whey)—namely, lecithin and mono-/diglycerides.
Lecithin can be non-vegan if it’s derived from egg yolks, but this particular product specifies that soy lecithin is used. So, no problems there.
However, it also contains mono- and diglycerides, which contain glycerin, an additive listed in PETA’s list of non-vegan and potentially non-vegan ingredients.14
They’re produced industrially by reacting glycerol with triglycerides, both of which can be found in plant and animal fats.
The product also contains vitamin A palmitate, which contains palmitic acid, another ingredient that’s a grey area for some.
Palmitic acid is usually derived from palm oil but can be sourced from animals.15
Then there’s the issue of palm oil, the technically vegan food probably having the most negative effects on the environment.
Imperial spread has several plant oils and palm/palm kernel are among them. Interestingly, Imperial has less oil compared to other spreads, and for this reason, isn’t technically considered margarine at all, though it’s still referred to as such.
The FDA stipulates that a food product needs to have 80% plant oils to be labeled as margarine, while Imperial “margarine” is 53% oil.1,16,17
If you’re an eco vegan or are especially concerned with the environmental effects of our food choices, then you may want to find a spread that uses soybean and/or canola exclusively.
That’s it for the vegan status of Imperial margarine. Thanks for reading.
You may also want to check out the following related articles:
- Imperial 53% Vegetable Oil Spread, 16 oz, 2 ct. https://www.walmart.com/ip/Imperial-53-Vegetable-Oil-Spread-16-oz-2-ct/37402299
- Is Margarine Vegan? Jolinda Hackett – https://www.thespruceeats.com/is-margarine-vegan-3376907
- Jay R. Hoffman & Michael J. Falvo (2004). “Protein – Which is best?”. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (3): 118–130.
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 211). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Whey Protein Production, Chemistry, Functionality, and Applications (Page 157). Mingruo Guo – Wiley – 2019. ISBN 9781119256021
- Whey Protein Production, Chemistry, Functionality, and Applications (Page 159). Mingruo Guo – Wiley – 2019. ISBN 9781119256021
- Whey Protein Production, Chemistry, Functionality, and Applications (Page 166). Mingruo Guo – Wiley – 2019. ISBN 9781119256021
- Whey Protein Production, Chemistry, Functionality, and Applications (Page 171). Mingruo Guo – Wiley – 2019. ISBN 9781119256021
- Whey Protein Production, Chemistry, Functionality, and Applications (Page 182). Mingruo Guo – Wiley – 2019. ISBN 9781119256021
- Desrumaux, A. and Marcand, J. (2002). Formation of sunflower oil emulsions stabilized by whey proteins with high‐pressure homogenization (up to 350 MPa): effect of pressure on emulsion characteristics. International Journal of Food Science and Technology 37 (3): 263–269.
- Whey Protein Production, Chemistry, Functionality, and Applications (Page 160). Mingruo Guo – Wiley – 2019. ISBN 9781119256021
- Damodaran, S. and Paraf, A. (1997). Protein‐stabilized foams and emulsions. In: Food Proteins and Their Applications (ed. S. Damodaran and A. Paraf), 57–111. New York: Marcel Dekker.
- Damodaran, S. (2005). Protein stabilization of emulsions and foams. Journal of Food Science 70 (3): R54–R66.
- Animal-derived Ingredients Resource: Living. https://www.peta.org/living/food/animal-ingredients-list/
- Palmitic Acid. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palmitic_acid#Occurrence_and_production
- CFR – Code Of Federal Regulations Title 21. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?FR=166.110
- Imperial margarine. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_margarine