Cholesterol comeback: Buyers welcome high-fat dairy items

November 03, 1991|By Florence Fabricant | Florence Fabricant,New York Times News Service

The dairy case is full of contradictions, as low-fat items face off against products with old-fashioned rich flavor.

Despite the rise of non-fat yogurts, reduced-fat spreads, cholesterol-free cheeses, cream substitutes, skim milk and 1 percent-fat milk, the people who make creme fraiche, rich European-style butters and whole milk in bottles are suddenly finding that they cannot keep up with the demand. What's going on?

"Perhaps people are starting to believe in quality calories," said Steven Jenkins, the manager of the cheese department at Dean & DeLuca in Manhattan. "Even though I haven't seen a decrease in the diet stuff, at the same time I do see an increase in sales of traditional cheeses. I can't keep my French butter in stock."

In a nationwide telephone survey of 1,000 adults conducted for the American Dietetic Association in June, 57 percent of the respondents said they usually or always shopped for low-fat items; that left 43 percent who said they bought lower-fat or fat-free alternatives only some of the time or not at all.

And 36 percent said they watched their overall fat intake but did not pay attention to the amount of fat in each food item. The margin of sampling error in the survey was plus or minus 3 percent.

Face it: Fat is where the flavor is. At Vermont Butter and Cheese in Websterville, Vt., sales of rich mascarpone and creme fraiche outstrip those of non-fat fromage blanc.

"Consumers like the European-style product, and they still want flavor," said Robert Reese, an owner.

And because of the demand for Plugra, the French-style butter that Hotel Bar Foods introduced three years ago for chefs, the company has just added an 8-ounce retail package.

Chefs like the butter for its low water content and rich flavor. Instead of being 80 percent fat, the minimum required by the government since 1923, Plugra is 82 percent fat.

"There are two consumer trends going on," said Alan Lowenfels, the general manager of Hotel Bar Foods. "There's the desire for low fat, but there's also the gourmet trade that won't compromise. This company has to satisfy both."

It will also introduce a light version of Hotel Bar butter, with 60 calories in a tablespoon, rather than the 100 or so that most butters contain.

"There are plenty of people who are willing to walk a little farther or do more sit-ups for more flavor," said Dan Connor, who loves milk, with cookies or pizza, and is a former milk taster for the Vermont Department of Agriculture.

He is now handling marketing for Vermont Country Milk, a new company that is about to begin selling milk in bottles in the Burlington area. It will be bottled in the plant at the University of Vermont in Burlington, which last used glass bottles in the 1960s.

Vermont Country is one of the boutique dairy companies that have emerged in recent years, mainly in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

All are finding a market eager for their products, filling the gap left by the larger dairies that now concentrate on industrial production and low-fat products.

Some of the newer farms also sell thick non-pasteurized whipping cream and chocolate milk made from whole milk. And "creamline," the name that the industry used to give unhomogenized milk with the cream floating on top, is reappearing in the culinary vocabulary.

Mr. Connor, who may be to milk what Robert M. Parker Jr. is to wine, said that Vermont Country milk would be 3.5 percent butterfat, which is higher than the minimum state requirement of 3.25 percent for whole milk.

"We're starting with premium quality raw material," he said, "and we've set standards that are higher than those followed by the industry as a whole."

The milk will take about a day to go from the cow to the retailer, making it very fresh. (Milk usually takes three to five days to reach stores.)

And because it will be bottled in glass it will have better flavor, Mr. Connor said. "There's a generation of kids out there willing to accept the flavor of milk in plastic jugs, and that's unfortunate," he said.

Glass bottles, unlike paper cartons, also prevent the milk from picking up the aroma of the old parsley or the leftover Chinese food that might be stored with it in the refrigerator. And because glass is a better insulator, the milk stays colder, maintaining both freshness and flavor.

Two years ago the people who run Ronnybrook Farm in Ancramdale, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, decided to start selling their milk directly to the public in glass bottles because they were having a hard time making ends meet selling milk in bulk to a large cooperative dairy. By bottling its own milk, the farm can set its own price.

"People are treating this like a religious experience," said Stephen James, who runs Ronnybrook Farm Dairy with a partner, Ronny Osofsky. "They love our bottles, but also they really love our milk."

Concern for the environment, as much as nostalgia, is a factor in the renewed interest in milk in bottles, notwithstanding the cleaning agents used on them.

Milk bottles can easily be reused, and the hefty deposit provides a strong impetus for consumers to return them.

Castle Creamery in Hayward, Calif., near San Francisco, began bottling milk in glass about five years ago. "We could define the environment as an issue," said Steven Rasmussen, the president, "but we find people buying our milk because it tastes so good."

Jerry Glantz, a Manhattan lawyer with a house in Vermont whose collection of old glass milk bottles led him to start Vermont Country Milk, said about 300 dairies across the country sell milk in bottles. "Every week you hear about another one," he said.

The Oberweis Dairy in Aurora, Ill., which has been bottling milk in glass since 1927, has had an increase of nearly 40 percent in sales in the past year.

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