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Butter: One of the Great Comeback Stories in U.S. Food History

Tim Gruber for The Wall Street Journal

Tim Gruber for The Wall Street Journal 

For WSJ, Kelsey Gee reports: Changing views of nutrition are turning butter into one of the great comeback stories in U.S. food history.

french-invent-margarine

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.

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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.

Tim Gruber for The Wall Street Journal

Tim Gruber for The Wall Street Journal

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 butter-adUnileverULVR.LN 0.00% 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.”

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.

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. 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.

butter-tall

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…(read more)WSJ

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2 Comments on “Butter: One of the Great Comeback Stories in U.S. Food History”

  1. […] By Pundit from another Planet For WSJ, Kelsey Gee reports: 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 […] Like this? Read more and get your own subscription at […]

  2. […] [Also see Butter: One of the Great Comeback Stories in U.S. Food History] […]


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