Demand for butter spreading

Shift: Although Americans are not eating as much of the dairy product as they once did, attitudes toward it are softening.

January 16, 2002|By Beverly Bundy | Beverly Bundy,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Butter? Margarine?

Butter!

Consumers have been slowly but surely oozing their way back to butter over the past seven years or so. It's not a huge jump, but the category is steadily growing at about 6 percent a year, with Americans now consuming about 4.3 pounds per person a year.

After the scared-of-your-dinner 1980s, this increase is a good sign to dairy farmers, who've watched their countrymen gobble up margarine and other spreads while ignoring the once-golden butter. But butter consumption is still a long way from what it once was.

"There was a time in this country," says Al Costigan, the president of the American Butter Institute, a trade group for dairy farmers and marketers, "that Americans each ate about 16 pounds of butter a year."

Why weren't Americans then keeling over in the streets, clasping their buttered muffins to their chests, their heart muscles seizing? Because in the days before World War II, much of America was agrarian, and we worked off all that saturated fat that so terrified us in the Reagan years.

That was also before America's young men went off to war, leaving the folks behind to mind the store and ration the food so there would be enough for the troops. Rosie the Riveter, and all her buddies at the plant, turned to margarine, that thoroughly modern spread, which was sold as a thick, white paste with a capsule of food coloring that consumers stirred in to get that rich, yellow butter color.

In 1930, per capita consumption of margarine was only 2.6 pounds (vs. 17.6 pounds of butter). Today, per capita consumption of margarine in the United States is 8.3 pounds (including vegetable-oil spreads), whereas butter consumption is about half that.

But something odd is happening on the way to the gym.

Ice-cream consumption rose 14 percent between 1990 and 1998, and many of the most popular flavors are relatively high in cream content.

Cream-cheese consumption doubled between 1984 and 1998.

Overall cheese consumption hits new records each year. In 1999, U.S. consumers ate a record 28.9 pounds of cheese per person.

Premium butters are showing up on grocery-store shelves.

As Americans are returning to the butter fold, they're discovering a perfect example of supply and demand. Between the country's rocketing thirst for higher-fat products and ebbing subsidies for the dairy industry, it's sticker shock, not fat shock, that is waking up shoppers.

Butter prices have been on a roller-coaster ride at the cash register, and with holiday baking boosting demand even further, a pound of butter now sells for about $3.99. According to University of Wisconsin numbers, that same pound cost $3.50 in July and $2.90 in March.

Land O' Lakes, the only national butter brand, has had to economize because of butterfat prices. The 2001 State Fair of Texas, usually the proud showcase for a statue carved of butter, had to go without last year. Land O' Lakes cited the high price of butter for the shortfall in sculpture.

And here's where Mother Nature comes in. The birthing season for cows runs from late winter - January and February - in the South and goes through June for cows in the coldest parts of the country. After delivering their calves, cows produce a great deal of milk - at an inconvenient time (January through May). Butterfat's peak demand season is the summer, for ice-cream production, and September through December, for baking.

So, it's an Economics 101 lesson - supply and demand. There's a tightness in supply just when there is the most demand, which means you pay more at the checkout.

But not much of this seems to be dissuading the consumer from going back to the luxury of butter.

One way to add sophistication to a meal is to serve flavored buttered. Here are some ways to use this simple trick for a variety of treats:

Start off a dinner party with a variety of flavored butters such as basil, herb and sun-dried tomato on lightly toasted bread squares. The combination of savory selections will make a colorful and delectable appetizer.

Mold butters at room temperature into logs, balls or even create shapes with miniature cookie cutters or candy molds and then place in your freezer. Try festive shapes such as a pumpkin, bell or leaf.

Fill disposable decorator bags with softened flavored butter and freeze the entire bag. When ready to use, defrost butter in refrigerator and then bring to room temperature before using to create designs atop main courses or as a garnish to any meal.

Try placing swirled dollops of pumpkin butter atop warm bread or crackers as an appetizer. For breakfast, place buttery designs on top of French toast or raisin bread.

Brown Butter Cookies

Makes 5 dozen

2 cups butter

2 cups brown sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup chopped pecans

ICING:

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar

1/2 cup hot water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

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