Butter roars back as margarine loses favor

Sales are at levels not seen in decades as consumers increasingly search for foods viewed as more natural.

By MSN Money Partner Jun 26, 2014 1:08PM
Credit: © Roel Smart/Getty Images
Caption: Butter and knife on a plateBy Kelsey Gee, The Wall Street Journal

Changing views of nutrition are turning butter into one of the great comeback stories in U.S. food history.

Americans this year are expected to eat an average of 5.6 pounds of butter, according to U.S. government data -- nearly 22.5 sticks for every man, woman and child. That translates to 892,000 total tons of butter consumed nationwide, an amount not seen since World War II.

Americans in 2013 for the third straight year bought more butter than margarine, spending $2 billion on products from Land O'Lakes Inc., Organic Valley and others, compared with $1.8 billion on spreads and margarines, according to IRI, a market-research firm.

The revival flows in part from new legions of home gourmets inspired by celebrity chefs and cooking shows with butter-rich recipes. Butter makers have encouraged the trend, using food channels and websites to promote what they say is their products' natural simplicity.

Butter's shifting fortunes also reflect the vicissitudes of thinking on healthy eating that rattle the national diet. Families for decades opted for vegetable spreads because of concerns about butter's high concentration of saturated fat, only to be told more recently that the trans fats traditionally contained in margarine are just as unhealthy. Many Americans also have altered their thinking on how important reducing all fat is for controlling weight.

Vegetable spreads have struggled recently with the perception that the products are "more manufactured and processed, and less wholesome and natural," said Douglas Balentine, director of nutrition science at Unilever (UL) North America, a unit of Unilever PLC, the biggest seller of non-butter spreads.

Courtney Shanower, a 33-year-old pizza-restaurant owner in Sugarcreek, Ohio, said she grew up in a family that bought tub margarine. "I didn't use butter for a long time because I was weight conscious," said Ms. Shanower, a mother of two. "When I turned 30 I started thinking about osteoporosis and calcium and thought I'm not getting the nutrition I need. So I stopped counting calories, and started thinking about nutrition."(See how you score on a quiz to select the smarter choices among these packaged-food match-ups.)

Similar oscillations have roiled other products. Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi and other no-calorie sodas became big sellers in the 1990s and early 2000s as Americans tried to cut sugar consumption, but their sales have fallen sharply in the U.S. recently as consumers increasingly worry about artificial sweeteners.

In May 2013, the Institute of Medicine, a government panel, said there is a lack of evidence that very low-salt diets prevent heart disease, raising questions about national dietary guidelines on sodium intake. A committee appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing scientific literature, but the agencies haven't issued new sodium recommendations.

Humans have been eating butter for millennia, valuing its ability to store longer than most meat and its utility as a flavoring. In the early 1900s, U.S. butter consumption averaged more than 18 pounds a person per year.

A French chemist invented margarine in 1869 in response to Napoleon III's call for a butter alternative. Initially it used fat from slaughtered animals that was cheaper than milk used for butter. Modern varieties using plant oils arose in the first half of the 20th century, when brands like Blue Bonnet and Parkay flourished. It gained more popularity around World War II, when butter was rationed.

Food producers liked margarine's lower cost. Health experts further fueled its rise by raising concerns about butter's cholesterol and saturated fats linked to heart disease. By its peak in 1976, U.S. margarine consumption reached 11.9 pounds a person, according to USDA data.

Technically, both butter and margarine contain at least 80 percent fat. Butter alternatives made from vegetable-based oils, such as products from Smart Balance, are often referred to as "spreads" and tend to contain less fat. Typical margarine components, like soybean and corn oils, tend to be liquid at room temperature. To solidify them, manufacturers change their chemical structures using hydrogen. Partial hydrogenation can also produce trans fats, which have been shown to increase levels of harmful cholesterol in humans.

As butter consumption fell to a nadir of 4.1 pounds per capita in 1997, scientists increasingly were emphasizing that trans fats could pose greater risks than other fats for heart disease.

"The battle has been back and forth," said professor and food scientist Sean O'Keefe at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. "In the 60s and 70s, before trans fats were really thought to be bad, we looked at margarine and said it was healthier because it didn't have as much saturated fat. The opposite is the case today."

Margarine companies emphasize that their softer spreads today generally don't contain trans fats -- although many stick margarines still do -- and say their product is healthier because it typically contains less saturated fat and calories than butter. "Nutrition experts encourage intake of soft spread margarines over butter," the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers says on its website.

Trevor Wuethrich, vice president of butter producer Grassland Dairy Products Inc., in Greenwood, Wis., said he could sense the tide was starting to turn when margarine executives approached it in the 1990s about trying to develop a softer butter product that could spread easily like tub margarines. It turned out to be too expensive.

Grassland Dairy's sales doubled in the past decade as it increased output and acquired other butter makers, said Mr. Wuethrich, 40, whose great-grandfather founded the company. "For the first time in my life we are at a point where the demand for butter is so good around the world that we're not looking for new business," he said.

Butter companies leveraged the growing interest in home cooking and in the Food Network, launched in 1993, and its 2010 spinoff, the Cooking Channel.

"The explosion of food television culture has shown consumers many new chefs who are all trained to use butter," said Heather Anfang, vice president of marketing in the dairy-foods division of Land O'Lakes. The Arden Hills, Minn.-based cooperative is the nation's largest butter producer with about a quarter of total sales by volume. Among Land O'Lakes' marketing partners is Pioneer Woman, a home-cooking site run by Oklahoma-based Ree Drummond, who also has a series on the Food Network.

Sales at Land O'Lakes' dairy-foods division -- which also sells cheese, milk powder and some vegetable-oil spreads -- rose 8 percent last year to $4.5 billion, outpacing the cooperative's overall growth.

Average U.S. consumption of butter in 2005 passed that of margarine, whose use fell to 3.5 pounds a person in 2010, the last year for which the USDA has data. Sales of margarine fell to $1.5 billion in the year ended May 10, 2014, down 11 percent from four years earlier, according to research firm Nielsen. Butter sales rose by a third to $2.3 billion in the same period.

Fighting back, Unilever, recently launched products for its I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and Country Crock brands that are made using yogurt, canola oil and salt and have "simple" in their names.

"Spreads are a mainstay of what Americans use to eat and cook, and we're making a major change to using simple ingredients to align with that trend," said Mike Faherty, a vice president of marketing at Unilever North America. "Consumers believe that butter is a simpler product that feels more natural, without understanding that it's an indulgence made from animal fats."

Some nutrition experts agree that the butter resurgence may not be healthy -- nor likely to continue. "When you've been in the field long enough," said Alice Lichtenstein, nutrition researcher at Tufts University, "you know that if the pendulum swings in one direction, it can swing back in the other."

More from The Wall Street Journal

Tags: UL
Jun 26, 2014 2:51PM

I prefer butter.  But at age 70, does it really matter what I eat as long as I don't require you to pay for my chosen lifestyles?

If I want to eat, drink, or smoke my way into the grave let me.  As long as I pay my for my own healthcare, and you don't, MIND your OWN Business, and I will stay out of yours.

Jun 26, 2014 2:36PM
Margarine is to butter as high fructose corn syrup is to sugar. It is far better to eat the natural food instead of some "healthier" derivative created in a lab. The more steps between you and your food the worse for you it probably is.
Jun 26, 2014 1:37PM
Why was obesity unheard of in the early 1900's when everyone was averaging 18 lbs of butter a year? Then butter consumption went down and margarine (rats won't even eat it) consumption went up and boom.....obesity baby!
Jun 26, 2014 1:46PM
So the Food Police never had this one right in the first place.
Jun 26, 2014 2:13PM
Did you know that Margarine is 1 molecule away from PLASTIC !

Check it out yourself.

Jun 26, 2014 2:43PM

There used to be a Creamery in every town of about 15-25,000 or more; Occasionally less..

Cities of 80-100,000 had 3-5 around town or on the edges.

They made different milk products, dried and otherwise, ice cream, butter and sometimes carried eggs.

Today you may be lucky to find one in a County, unless a heavy population in Area.?

Now they truck stuff from about anywhere...

Jun 26, 2014 4:16PM
Next product line:  I can't believe it's not margarine.

Jun 26, 2014 3:03PM
It's all about the price. If you can afford butter, you buy it.
Jun 26, 2014 2:31PM

I've heard that a couple times before...About Margarine/Oleo compared to Plastic..

I guess it could be..

Put enough Fat, Salt or Sugar in ANYTHING, and people will eat it...IMO

We go both ways here (dirty minds are thinking something else) Marg and Butter...

Salad dressing or (Miracle whip) and Mayonnaise are another dual item in the Fridge..

We are to old to change now....

I eat Oleo.....But like my "butter toast" about midnight, 3-4 times or so per week.

Or ice cream...

Jun 26, 2014 8:16PM
If you don't eat any or little meat then butter, animal fat, is probably a good diet ingredient. But if you're a carnivore and gorge on animal fat then butter will probably stop your heart quicker then vegetable oil.
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