All You Can Eat

Butter isn’t doing so well these days. Heart attacks and cellulite have scared people away. Death and fat are bad, right? This seems logical on the surface, but the issue is more complex than “butter is bad.”

Margarine is partly to blame for butter’s fall from grace. It had innocent enough beginnings: Napoleon III offered a reward to anyone who could solve the problem of the perishable nature of butter for the army and navy. In 1869, Michel Eugène Chevreul created margarine from beef tallow and skimmed milk. It was an affordable and hardy substitute. With the invention of hydrogenization – the practice of bombarding molecules with hydrogen atoms to make them half-saturated – vegetable oil was used instead of beef tallow. The advantage of partially hydrogenated oil is that its shelf life is far better than lard or butter. Instead of products having to be rotated every three days, products like Twinkies can reportedly last for years, making the new oil the answer to food producers’ problems.

Even so, margarine met resistance in the US from the dairy lobby because it posed a serious threat to the industry. In order to curb its appeal, the use of coloring was banned for a while. The market slowly yielded and it gained popularity with bakers and home users because of its low cost and long shelf life. Butter shortages and rationing during WWII helped secure margarine’s presence in the American market.

photo / jessicafm 

In the ’80s and ’90s, people became aware of the ways various foods affect health. In order to communicate nutritional information to the general public, the information was simplified. Butter was quick to be vilified as an instant heart attack. Saturated fat was out and margarine and olive oil were in.

Scientists recently discovered that partially hydrogenated oils – or trans fats – weren’t the miracle oil after all. The composition is closer to plastic than anything else. The human body doesn’t know what to do with the unusual molecule, and it has been linked to an increase in heart disease. These trans fats are being vilified in the same way butter was.

In order to keep up with trends, many products such as Crisco took most trans fats out of their recipe. Some products still have some trans fats in them. Ever see a label that said, “0 grams trans fat”? This looks odd for a reason. Why don’t they just say “trans fat free”? Government regulations allow up to 499 milligrams of trans fat to be in a product labeled as having 0 grams of trans fat. The measurement is based on serving size, which is up to the manufacturer to decide. This can be misleading because of varying serving sizes and the quantity of servings someone consumes each day. Zero grams can add up to several grams.

Margarine still has some merit. Headlines decrying the dangers of trans fat have created a mass exodus from partially hydrogenated fats. Cities including New York and Philadelphia are either enacting or considering bans on trans fats within city limits. These stiff regulations have given rise to some truly trans fat free products. Nevertheless, butter doesn’t appear so bad in comparison and people are returning to it.

I’m glad. I could talk for days about the greatness of butter. It yields a more delicate pastry, a better spread, and is the base of many sauces for a reason: taste. When butter is cooked, it transforms. The milk proteins and sugars brown and create new flavors that can be exploited for taste. When you heat margarine, it just gets hotter. Much like the margarine explosion, there are more and more types and brands of butter on the market each day.

Land O’Lakes is no longer the only butter available in the supermarket. I have to pause a moment to say that the only things Land O’Lakes has going for it are market control and a nifty design featuring a cute and friendly Native American girl. Besides that, I think it’s worthless and tasteless. Most people eat it because it’s all they’ve ever had. For the butter-deprived, there is good news. Flavor awaits. There are French butters, Irish butters, American butters, boutique butters, butter made from goat milk, leftovers of parmesan cheese making, and raw milk. And you can get all of these in either salted, unsalted, or demi-sel – the last of these being my favorite. Demi-sel commonly has sea salt incorporated into it at the end of production. Nothing beats the crunch and explosion of salt when biting down on a piece of buttered bread. Fat content, place of origin, salt content, and whether it was cultured all play a role in the taste and texture of butter.

It’s not that saturated fats got any better for you. Well, they kind of did since the media sensationalized and oversimplified the qualities of butter and saturated fat. People mainly figured out that fats are both good and bad for you and a balance is necessary. So lard, olive oil, palm oil, canola oil, and butter are all bad for you in that they are fat and if you eat enough of them, you will die. But if you eat enough of almost anything, you will die. So why not eat the tastiest, most potent fat out there now and then? Just don’t overindulge. It’s like chocolate: You could eat a whole bar of Hershey’s or be just as satisfied with a small piece of dark chocolate. But don’t be afraid of a little butter.

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Anonymous's picture

I didn’t know any of that until I read this article. I no longer feel guilty about butter.

Anonymous's picture

I like to rub butter all over my body before I go work out. It smells absolutely delicious when my skin temperature heats up, usually about mid-way through my cardio session. I love this stuff—it seems to have endless amounts of uses. Up with butter, down with the others.

Anonymous's picture

i just threw up

Anonymous's picture

Margarine is for emotionally handicapped people.