Vegan margarine is a form of margarine that is produced so the final product does not contain any animal products or byproducts. Although margarine is sometimes considered a dairy-free alternative to butter, compounds derived from dairy products are sometimes added to margarine, although labeling regulations do not always require the manufacturers to list these compounds as dairy. Margarine also is, for the most part, made from oils extracted from plants, although this is not always the case; animal fats sometimes are added, making the resulting margarine distinctly non-vegan. Palm oil, sunflower oil, olive oil and soy oil are often used to make vegan margarine with no dairy byproducts or animal fats added. Just like traditional margarine, vegan margarine is available in solid bars or in the form of soft spreads that use even fewer ingredients in production, though they sometimes do not contain enough fat to be effectively used for cooking.
During the production of margarine, one of the first steps is to extract the oil from a plant-based source such as soybeans or olives. This oil occasionally can be extracted using a process that introduces animal-based enzymes, rendering the margarine non-vegan. At the same time, the plant-based oils can have animal fats added to them to increase the texture, for cost effectiveness or to add a specific flavor component. In general, vegan margarine manufacturers use a mechanical process, such as extrusion, to remove the oil from a substance and do not use animal fats in production. A few manufacturers even make vegan margarine with machines that are never used to process non-vegan ingredients, meaning there is little chance of accidentally introducing non-vegan ingredients to the vegan product.
Another aspect of margarine production is the addition of solids and emulsifiers. To keep margarine in a solid state, it sometimes is processed with milk and leaves behind dairy compounds. Lactic acid also can be added to margarine to increase the flavor and give it more of the familiar dairy taste of butter. When making vegan margarine, these steps are avoided, usually by employing oils such as palm oil that are not completely liquid at room temperature. These oils are sometimes partially hydrogenated to complete the solidification but are never mixed with milk or eggs the way some non-vegan margarines are.
When sold commercially, most vegan margarine is clearly marked as such. It is unsafe to assume that a margarine that is not labeled as such is vegan or vegetarian, because there might be minute amounts of animal byproducts or dairy present. In general, most vegan margarine can be used like regular margarine, although the fat content needs to be checked before it is used for baking. There also is a greater variety of noticeable differences in the taste of vegan margarines, because so few ingredients are added to mask the natural flavors of the oils.