But one thing is for sure. In its race against margarine, butter
is winning -- and even outpacing olive oil of late -- as consumers
seek pure, simple, flavor-rich ingredients.
Marketers are making the changes to fend off private labels and
appeal to millennials and other cooks seeking flavorful recipes,
said Phil Lempert, a food-industry analyst who runs the website
SupermarketGuru. "It's a category that was dormant for a long time
and just started gaining innovation in past few years."
At stake is a piece of a mature -- but shrinking -- category.
Retail dollar sales of oil and fats products will drop 5% from 2011
to 2016 in the U.S., according to a recent forecast by market
researcher Euromonitor International. The reason is that more
people will eat out as the economy improves. And when cooking at
home, consumers will continue to seek more-healthful, oil-free
methods, such as steaming or grilling, Euromonitor stated.
But butter seems to be gaining favor for people who still like
to grease things up a bit. Grocery-unit sales of butter grew 2.19%
in the year ending May 13, compared with a 0.21% uptick in olive
oil and a 6.24% decline in margarine, spreads and butter blends,
according to SymphonyIRI data, which excludes Walmart sales.
Overall, butter led with $1.5 billion in sales during the period,
followed by $1.4 billion for margarine/spreads and $706 million for
Meanwhile, Euromonitor projects that butter will grow volume
sales 10% from 2011 to 2016, while margarine will continue falling
because it is viewed as an "artificial" product.
Still, Land O'Lakes, the nation's top butter brand by far with
25% share, is not taking the growth for granted. The marketer has
formed a partnership with celebrity food blogger and "Pioneer
Woman" Ree Drummond to push its new butter with olive oil and sea
salt, which hits shelves earlier this year. The campaign, which
includes ads in the fall on the Food Network and Cooking Channel,
aims to persuade younger generations to buy the new butter for uses
in which regular olive oil has stolen share, such as sauteing and
Butter gives food a creamy, rich flavor, and the olive oil makes
it soften quicker while giving it a slightly higher smoke point
(meaning it won't burn as fast), said Heather Anfang, Land O'Lakes'
marketing director for retail butter and spreads. The launch
follows last year's rollout of a butter spread with cinnamon and
sugar, which Land O'Lakes encourages people to spread on toast or
put in warm cereal.
Some health experts still favor margarine over butter. In a
recent staff blog, Mayo Clinic dietician Jennifer Nelson wrote that
margarine is usually better for heart health because it's made from
vegetable oils and has no cholesterol.
Butter, she notes, is an animal fat containing cholesterol and
"high levels of saturated fat."
Margarine, which was created by a French scientist in the late
1800s at the request of Emperor Louis Napoleon III, gained favor in
the U.S. in the 1950s when coloring-ban laws were lifted.
(Margarine, historically opposed by the dairy industry, is
naturally white.) But in more recent years margarine faced a
backlash because it contains trans fat, which became a health
villain because it increases the risk of heart disease. Marketers
have responded by taking it out.
instance, has removed trans fats from soft spread brands such as
Country Crock and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. The latter in
January launched a campaign called "Cheat on Butter" by Omnicom
Group's DDB, Toronto that
plugs it as having "fresh butter taste" but "70% less saturated
fat." And since 2009, Country Crock has put more marketing behind a
version with calcium and Vitamin D. About two months ago, Conagra
added calcium to 45-ounce tubs of Blue Bonnet, seeking to bring a
"better-for-you option within the value brands in the category," a
Meanwhile, Smart Balance in May launched nationally a line of
"spreadable butters" with Omega-3s and a plant sterol that promises
to "block the cholesterol in butter."
Spreadable butter, which combines butter with canola oil, was
launched on a large scale in the U.S. by Land O'Lakes in 2000. The
marketer now controls 90% of the spreadable-butter market,
estimated Smart Balance CEO Stephen Hughes, who said the
subcategory is worth about $130 million and growing. "We think
[Land O'Lakes] did something very smart," he said in an interview.
With the plant sterol, "we've evolved a next step above them where
we've really provided the consumer with a risk-free, guilt-free
butter." New TV ads by agency TBC, Baltimore, declare that "butter
just got better." One version includes extra virgin olive oil.
Of course, spreadable butters are not immune to the kind of
legal tussling long associated with the butter/margarine category.
In California, Challenge Dairy Products and retailer Kroger Corp. recently faced a
class-action lawsuit alleging the marketer's spreadable butter
product was deceptive because it did not meet the state's
definition for "butter" because it contains edible oils. The
plaintiffs said the word "spread" -- to distinguish it from butter
-- was printed in lettering that was too small. Lawyers for
Challenge and Kroger argued that spreadable butter's main
ingredient is a dairy product (cream churned into butter),
therefore, it does not have to be labeled as a "spread." A state
judge dismissed the complaint on grounds that it was pre-empted by
federal law. The plaintiffs plan to appeal.