Could margarine become a thing of the past?
For years, the butter substitute has seen a decline in customers as fat-phobia has slowly been replaced by the desire for more natural ingredients and studies are showing the benefits of good fat – with Time magazine declaring in a 2016 cover story that “Butter is Back.”
On an earnings call Thursday, Unilever made clear its spreads division, which puts Country Crock and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter into their own category, isn’t keeping up with the rest of the company.
“All of our categories, and all of our subcategories, except for spreads, showed growth. Excluding spreads, underlying sales growth was 3.4 percent,” Unilever CEO Paul Polman said on the call.
The company announced in April that it would be selling its spreads division.
Why is this a big deal?
In the beginning, margarine was the foundation of Unilever. The company started in 1929 as a merger between Dutch margarine maker Margarine Unie and British soapmaker Lever Brothers. Consumers were wary of saturated fat, which helped make margarine more popular than butter until 2004, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But even McDonald's made the switch from margarine to butter in 2015 for its breakfast items.
Unilever tried to keep up with the times as consumers moved away from processed foods and artificial flavors, favoring more natural ingredients, but results were underwhelming.
“Margarine has become a marker for cheap, processed, artificial, unhealthy food,” Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, told Bloomberg in 2014. “The irony is hilarious. Unilever went to a lot of trouble to formulate healthy margarines, but the zeitgeist has caught up with them.”
In 2015, Country Crock reformulated its spread to be more natural with just 10 ingredients, including soybean oil, salt, vinegar, natural flavors, palm kernel, palm oil, and beta carotene. Unfortunately, Country Crock’s remaining loyal fans couldn’t stomach the new flavor, with some saying they “gagged” over the taste.
And in June, Unilever debuted a completely vegan version of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (some margarine brands used to use animal fat, while others still use some amount of milk). It’s being heavily marketed as plant-based and organic, with the brand touting on its website that “With an irresistibly creamy taste you’ll love, it’s 100% non-dairy, Vegan Action Certified and made from the goodness of plants. Unbelievable!”
Only time will tell if vegans will be the saviors of margarine. In the meantime, whether you choose to get your spread on with butter or margarine, we’d suggest keeping it in moderation.