We’re in a Golden Age for Butter Consumption

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Americans are deciding that butter is better. Consumption of old-fashioned butter has reached a 40-year high in the U.S.

According to the American Butter Institute, butter consumption in the U.S. in 2013 reached its highest levels in four decades. The trend has been years in the making, with average butter intake rising 25% since 2002. By 2012, per capita butter consumption hit 5.6 lbs. annually, a sharp increase over the low of 4.1 lbs. in 1997.

The shift is the result of a change in consumer preferences toward simple, all-natural butter as a spread and cooking ingredient, and away from margarine, “butter-like” spreads, and, in particular, trans fats, or partially hydrogenated fats and oils. Artery-clogging trans fats have been under attack for years—in 2006 New York City was the first U.S. city to ban their use in restaurants. This past fall, the FDA took steps to further ban trans fats from baked and fried foods.

In a Los Angeles Times story that clarifies that while butter may be healthier than some alternatives, “it’s not health food… [it's] fat — and not the good kind,” a prominent butter businessman theorized why Americans are demanding more butter:

“Everything tastes better with butter,” said David Riemersma, president of the American Butter Institute and head of Butterball Farms in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Consumers also want real, natural wholesome products. They want to understand all the things on an ingredient list. Butter fits perfectly. It’s either just cream or cream and salt.”

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Butter producers are just finishing up what’s been a particularly hectic few months. Not only is butter consumption up overall compared to previous years, but the Thanksgiving-New Year’s period is always the peak time of year for slathering on the butter. One estimate has it that roughly 40% of annual American butter consumption takes place during this frenzied, gluttonous period of baking pies and cooking rich, hearty meals.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Wisconsin dairy farmers and creameries started gearing up for the most recent period for peak butter intake back in August. Even so, it was difficult to meet the demand for butter.

“At the end of the week — every week — our coolers are empty,” one family-owned Wisconsin creamery said around Thanksgiving.”We just can’t keep up.”

Experts say that they expect butter consumption to remain strong for the foreseeable future. If anything, market forces and consumer preferences indicate that Americans will be eating even more butter going forward.

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Even so, we have a long way to go to come anywhere near the buttered-up generations of yore. The Los Angeles Times noted that before World War II and the widespread shift to margarine, per capita butter consumption was up over 18 lbs. annually, more than three times higher than the 2012 level.