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My margarine blind taste test

Which one tastes the most like butter? A panel of 'experts' decides.

By MSN Money Partner Sep 21, 2012 6:04PM

Len Penzo dot Com logoThis post comes from Len Penzo at partner blog Len Penzo dot Com.

 

Did you know that margarine was invented in 1869 after a challenge from Emperor Louis Napoleon III, who was looking for a satisfactory low-cost substitute for butter that could be used by commoners and his military? It was.

 

Image: Full Shopping Cart in Grocery Store© Fuse/Getty ImagesOver the years, butter consumption has steadily decreased in the United States. By the end of World War II, the average person consumed roughly 15 pounds of butter annually, but less than 4 pounds of margarine. However, since the 1960s, Americans have preferred the lower-cost butter substitute -- so much so that, by the turn of the 21st century, the average American was consuming about 8 pounds of margarine per year, compared with only 5 pounds of butter.

 

Of course, every margarine maker wants you to believe that its spread tastes like the real thing. Obviously, they can't all be dead ringers. It's only natural that some margarine brands do a -- if you'll pardon the expression -- "butter" job than others, which is why I decided to conduct yet another of my taste-test experiments to sort out the posers from the créme de la créme.

 

How the test was conducted

As with all of my experiments, like the blind ketchup taste test I conducted a while back, I recruited a bunch of family members as an expert panel. As an added bonus, this time three additional family friends joined in the fun, making for 12 enthusiastic volunteers in all.

 

With the panel in place, I prepared the individual samples by spreading five butter substitutes --plus one more that was real butter -- on individual baguette slices. To ensure the taste test was a blind comparison, the samples were placed on plates marked 1 through 6.

 

The experts were asked to give each sample a traditional letter grade based solely on taste. The top performers received "A" grades, and the worst-tasting samples received an "F." The panelists were also free to note any comments they had regarding each sample.

 

When comparing products, panelists who could not discern a clear taste advantage between two or more brands were allowed to give identical grades. Finally, each panelist was asked to give a best guess as to which of the six samples was the real butter.

 

Introducing the competitors

I ran down to my local Albertsons supermarket and bought five butter substitutes offered for sale:

  • Albertsons margarine.
  • Blue Bonnet.
  • Country Crock.
  • I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.
  • Land O'Lakes Fresh Buttery Taste Spread.

I also bought real butter bearing the Albertsons label. (Post continues below video.)

Here now, in reverse order, is a summary of the, um, udderly amazing taste test results, based upon the inputs of my expert panel:

 

5. Albertsons margarine

Price (per ounce): 12 cents.
Panel scoring: 23 points.
Grade-point average (4-point scale): 1.92 (C-).
Judges who thought it was real butter: 1.

When it comes to the least expensive margarine in the survey -- the Albertsons brand was one-third the price of its store-brand butter counterpart -- apparently you get what you pay for. The store-brand margarine was thoroughly whipped by the competition, so badly that four panel members awarded it a grade of "D" or "F." Then again, it wasn't all bad; Paul thought the Albertsons margarine was delicious -- so much so that he was fooled into thinking it was the real butter.

 

4. I Can't Believe It's Not Butter

Price (per ounce): 30 cents. 
Panel scoring: 28 points.
Grade-point average (4-point scale): 2.33 (C+).
Judges who thought it was real butter: 0.

Despite it being the most expensive margarine surveyed, and the confident -- if not cheesy -- claim on its label, not a single panelist was fooled into thinking I Can't Believe It's Not Butter was actually the real thing. Nina gave it a failing grade for being flavorless. Mark agreed, saying that it was terribly bland. Unfortunately, the positive reviews were spread a little thin, although, to be fair, my mom, Chris and Aunt Doris all gave the I Can't Believe It's Not Butter a pat on the back and awarded it an "A" grade.

 

3. Blue Bonnet

Price (per ounce): 13 cents. 
Panel scoring: 31 points.
Grade-point average (4-point scale): 2.58 (C+).
Judges who thought it was real butter: 1.

I always thought the old advertising slogan "Everything's better with Blue Bonnet on it" was a dangerous claim, if only because it left little, er, margarine for error. (I know, but just play along.) As for my expert panel, the second-lowest-priced butter substitute in the survey performed surprisingly well, garnering above-average grades from more than half the tasters. In fact, Blue Bonnet performed so well that Tony, my Mister-Fix-It father-in-law, swore that it really was butter.

2. Country Crock

Price (per ounce): 17 cents. 
Panel scoring: 32 points.
Grade-point average (4-point scale): 2.67 (B-).
Judges who thought it was real butter: 2.

The funnest part of doing these blind taste tests is watching the panelists' faces when they discover their preconceived notions are wrong. The Honeybee was one of three panelists who gave Country Crock an "A" grade; she was also one of two panelists who mistook it for real butter. As a result, after 15 years of using I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, we now keep Country Crock in our refrigerator. And despite Rose, Mark and Nina all pronouncing it a bit too salty, Country Crock was the only butter substitute in the survey that didn't receive a below-average grade.

 

1. Land O'Lakes Fresh Buttery Taste Spread

Price (per ounce): 23 cents. 
Panel scoring: 35 points.
Grade-point average (4-point scale): 2.92 (B-).
Judges who thought it was real butter: 2.

OK. I realize I've milked the dairy puns long enough, so I'll get right to the point:Tthe Land O'Lakes Fresh Buttery Taste Spread was not only good enough to convince two panelists that it was real butter, but it also received more "A" grades (four) than any of the other margarines in the survey.

 

Len Penzo's margarine taste test

 

The bottom line

As you can see from the tally sheet, the butter sample actually ended up being the panel's cream of the crop -- and fully half of the tasters correctly identified it as the real stuff.

 

Of course, with price premiums as much as three times higher than the least expensive substitute, those who insist on using real butter usually end up paying for it. The good news is there are several low-cost butter alternatives out there that are capable of fooling more than a few people at least some of the time.

 

So, ahem . . . spread the word.

 

More from Len Penzo dot Com and MSN Money:

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