Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter


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Future Looking Bright For Butter

In slightly less than three years, the key ingredient in butter’s longtime nemesis, margarine, will lose its status as generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, for use in human food. And we can’t help but think that butter’s future is looking brighter because of this, and for many other reasons.

As reported last week (please see the story on page 11), the US Food and Drug Administration has finalized its determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in foods, are not GRAS for use in human foods.

FDA has set a compliance period of three years, or until June 18, 2018, after which no PHOs can be added to human food unless they are otherwise approved by FDA.

This will not, of course, mean the end of margarine. Most margarine products on the market today don’t contain any PHOs. In that context, it’s interesting to review margarine’s history and how butter consumption has fared over the years and might fare in the future.

According to a 2009 thesis by Chris Burns, a masters degree student at the University of Vermont, oleomargarine was invented in 1869 in France as an inexpensive alternative to butter. Kind of ironic that France, a country known for its rich foods and high per capita cheese consumption, invented the product that’s tormented, and at times out-competed, butter for well over a century.

For many years, margarine didn’t actually contain PHOs. As explained at the 17th annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, in 1889, the following ingredients enter into the manufacture of oleomargarine in the US: oleo oil, neutral lard, some liquid vegetable oil, as cottonseed, sesame, or peanut; butter, “in the higher grades,” cream and milk, together with salt, and annatto or other coloring matter.

In 1915, the production of oleomargarine was changed by the introduction of the process of hydrogenation, Chris Burns noted in his 2009 thesis. “Hydrogenation revolutionized the industry, although it too became a source of controversy when it was later discovered that this process produces unhealthy trans-fats,” Burns wrote.

The history of trying to regulate margarine dates back almost as long as margarine has been around. More specifically, according to a separate presentation at that 1889 APHA meeting, Congress in July of 1886 had passed a law, the Oleomargarine Act, which was approved by President Grover Cleveland on August 2, 1886.

And some 64 years later, President Harry Truman signed legislation that repealed the Oleomargarine Act.
That was just at the federal level. By 1902, 32 states had bans on coloring margarine yellow to make it look more like butter. Wisconsin became the last state to lift its ban on colored oleo, in 1967, although several states at that time still had taxes of various amounts on margarine, according to a story in the Milwaukee Journal in May of 1967, including Minnesota, then the leading butter-producing state (Wisconsin then ranked second).

At the same time that anti-margarine regulations and legislation were slowly disappearing, margarine consumption was also being boosted by what could be considered a pro-margarine stance by the nutrition science community (or at least those who were writing dietary guidelines).

The first edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in 1980, advised consumers to avoid too much fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Score one for margarines made with PHOs; since dietary cholesterol is found only in foods from animal sources, margarines could claim a big zero for cholesterol content, compared to around 30 milligrams of cholesterol in a one-tablespoon serving of butter.

Things started to unravel for margarine in early 1994, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned FDA to require trans fat to be labeled together with saturated fat on nutrition labels. Per capita butter consumption at that time was just over four and a half pounds a year.

Trans fat labeling became mandatory at the beginning of 2006, and then in 2013 FDA proposed to revoke the GRAS status for partially hydrogenated oils. Amid all of this negative publicity surrounding partially hydrogenated oils, butter capita butter consumption reached five pounds in 2008 and 5.5 pounds in 2013.
While partially hydrogenated oils are going to be essentially phased out of the food industry in the next three years, and they aren’t used in many if any margarine-type products any more, the future still appears brighter for butter than for margarine.

Butter would appear to hit far more hot consumer trends these days than does margarine. Consumers, for example, desire simple ingredient lists; butter delivers that quite nicely, with just two ingredients (sweet cream and salt), while at least one stick margarine product (I can’t believe it’s not butter! all-purpose sticks) has a pretty lengthy ingredient list that includes both natural and artificial flavors.

Butter has also in recent years made successful inroads into other categories, such as organic (there are some organic spreads, but they too have lengthy ingredient lists), artisan, and grass-fed.

And while technically somebody could introduce a “European-style” margarine, since it was invented in France, it’s unlikely such a product would succeed in the marketplace.

Per capita butter consumption is now at its highest level in decades, and butter production has topped 1.8 billion pounds for four straight years. Based both on the ongoing negative publicity surrounding stick margarine, and the many positives surrounding butter, we expect both consumption and production to keep rising.

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