A meme going around Facebook in South Africa shows a photo of a block of margarine with the caption: “Margarine is one molecule away from plastic; and shares 27 ingredients with paint. Bon Appetit!”
It’s been shared more than 29,000 times.
A single molecule away from plastic?
A 2013 Huffpost article debunking myths around margarine explains: “Most types of margarine are blends of vegetable oils, while plastics are usually a polymer (chain of repeating molecules) of ethylene molecules (four hydrogen atoms and two carbon atoms).”
Ethylene is a hydrocarbon gas.
“Adding another molecule to margarine does not turn it into plastic,” Huffpost says.
“It doesn’t even make sense. Margarine contains several different molecules. Plastics are polymers and completely unrelated to anything in margarine.”
Then there’s US fact-checking website Snopes, which explains: “Many disparate substances share similar chemical properties, but even the slightest variation in molecular structure can make a world of difference.”
Even if margarine were one molecule away from plastic (it isn’t), eating it still wouldn’t be the same as eating a plastic bag.
As Snopes points out: “The only difference between hydrogen peroxide and water is one oxygen atom.” We need water to survive, but drinking hydrogen peroxide is a bad idea.
27 ingredients shared with paint?
Science-Based Medicine explains this simply: “Paint doesn’t contain any of the ingredients in margarine.”
Margarine has only eight ingredients, according to New Zealand consumer website Canstar Blue. “Creating margarine generally requires salt, emulsifiers, lecithin, flavouring, colour agent, water, skim milk and a plant based oil (such as sunflower, olive, palm or corn).”
The ingredients of paint are very different. About Civil, a civil engineering site, has the recipe. “For most of the paints the basic ingredients are: solvent (used to obtain the desired flow of paint), binder (to add adhesion and cohesion), pigments (to add colour) and additives (for additional characters).”
Not only does margarine not have enough ingredients to share 27 of them with paint, but the ingredients of the two substances are simply not the same.
Origins of the ‘plastic margarine’ myth
But where does the myth come from?
Fats such as margarine have plasticity, which means they can be spread, manipulated and shaped. It doesn’t mean they’re made of plastic.
“Fats are made up of triglycerides (three individual fatty acids bound together through their reaction with glycerol in a single large molecule),” says Love Food Love Science, a website run by the UK Institute of Food Science and Technology.
“Triglycerides have different melting points, with some fatty acids staying solid for longer than other. This feature gives the fat its plasticity.” – Taryn Willows (28/05/19)
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