Margarine and butter have been fighting each other for decades, but now the battle is over – and butter has won! After years of bashing butter and claiming that dairy fat kills people, the giant margarine maker Unilever has gone so far as to incorporate real butter into its most popular Rama spread in Germany and another spread in Finland.
Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch company, makes Flora, Country Crock, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. For 20 years, they’ve tried to “beat butter at its own game,” but there’s point continuing. Margarine sales in the U.S. have dropped to their lowest point in 70 years, and sales are down by 30 percent since 2000. By contrast, butter sales in the U.S. are at a 40-year high, up 65 percent since 2000. In Germany, butter outsells margarine three-to-one, and sales of the latter didn’t grow at all in 2013.
Nutritionist Marion Nestle explains in this article for Bloomberg:
“Margarine has become a marker for cheap, processed, artificial, unhealthy food,” while at the same time butter’s reputation has greatly improved. “The irony is hilarious. Unilever went to a lot of trouble to formulate healthy margarines, but the zeitgeist has caught up with them.”
Antoine Bernard de Saint-Affrique, the head of Unilever’s food division, announced the change in approach when he spoke to investors last month: “We have been too obsessed, overly obsessed on the fact that butter was opposed to margarine. I’m happy to say that this time is over and we have changed. And we have changed in a very significant way.” No kidding!
While Unilever’s decision to add butter to its spreads was likely mostly financial – investors are getting frustrated with the low numbers, calls to sell the company are increasing, and they need to get those sales up – it’s also a wonderful example of the power of ordinary consumers. Food corporations, despite appearing to be huge and impenetrable, still depend entirely on what shoppers in the local grocery store choose to buy. While I have no intention to buy margarine, even if there is real butter added to it, it’s good to be reminded that I vote with every dollar I spend on food, and that those collective ‘drops in the bucket’ add up over time, causing companies like Unilever to reconsider their entire business approach.
I’ll leave you with this funny line from comedian Demetri Martin: “I like to use ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’ on my toast in the morning, because sometimes when I eat breakfast, I like to be incredulous. How was breakfast? Unbelievable.” Now he’s really got something to be incredulous about.