GREENWOOD, Wis. — Butter is back.
Driven by the movement toward food that contains natural ingredients as well as the foodie and gourmet cooking trends, butter consumption in the United States has reached its highest level in 40 years, dairy industry leaders say.
Where margarine and other spreads were once hailed as healthier alternatives to butter, the pendulum may have swung back in butter's favor.
In the middle of the trend is Grassland Dairy Products Inc. in Greenwood, whose plants make about a third of the nation's butter. Grassland is the largest family-owned butter company in the United States and also has plants in West Point, Neb., and Hyrum, Utah.
“We're busy,” said Trevor Wuethrich, a vice president at Grassland and the fourth generation of the Wuethrich family to work at the company, which was founded by John Wuethrich in 1904. “We're definitely seeing butter consumption go up.”
Busy, too, is Al Bekkum, whose family-owned Nordic Creamery in Westby, Wis., is hard-pressed to meet demand for its butter. “At the end of the week — every week — our coolers are empty,” Bekkum said. “We just can't keep up.”
This time of year is butter's sweet spot. Estimates are that at least 40 percent of butter consumption in the United States takes place between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. That increase in demand is driven by holiday baking and Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
Grassland begins gearing up for the holiday rush each year around Aug. 1, Wuethrich said.
“It puts stress on us from August to the first week in December,” he said. “There aren't many vacations given during those four months.
“Butter's perishable,” he added. “We can't make it in January and put it away in the warehouse” until the holiday season arrives.
Bekkum sees the rush, too. “Especially this time of year, it's just crazy for us,” he said.
It's not just butter cookies at the holidays driving the trend, though. Butter's numbers have been moving steadily higher over time. During the past decade, Americans have increased their butter intake by 24 percent, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
“The last five years, butter has really taken off,” said Peter Vitaliano, chief economist for the National Milk Producers Federation, an Arlington, Va., trade association. And the growth in butter consumption is expected to continue.
Butter consumption has now reached 5.6 pounds a year per capita, up from its low point of 4.1 pounds in 1997, according to the Milk Producers Federation.
“The basic factors that we kind of see as contributing to particularly this recent surge in butter consumption, we don't see any real change in that,” Vitaliano said.
All of this is good news for the state's dairy industry.
“Wisconsin is one of the major butter suppliers in the country,” said Marianne Smukowski of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We make a lot of butter in this state.”
Having end markets for all the milk produced in the state is important economically.
“The price of milk that every dairy farmer gets paid is pretty much determined, under our current pricing system, by the market prices of four basic products: butter, nonfat dry milk, cheese and dry whey,” Vitaliano said. “The stronger the demand, the higher those prices are going to be in a relative sense. Every producer benefits when butter demand goes up.
“A strong butter market is very good news for all producers.”
Some of the increase in butter consumption is due to a shift in consumer preferences away from processed foods, artificial ingredients and trans fats derived from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month began the process of banning trans fats from the American food supply.
“They (consumers) want to see something that is wholesome and not a lot of other ingredients in it,” Smukowski said. “They are looking for something that is pure and good to eat.”
“Butter is as natural as you can get,” Wuethrich said. “It's cream and salt.”
That doesn't mean you should gobble down a stick of butter for breakfast every morning. Butter should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet, dairy experts say.
Still, “People are starting to realize that maybe we better look at what we are actually putting into our bodies,” Bekkum said.
Q. What is the definition of butter?
A. Butter is a food product made exclusively from milk, cream or both, with or without common salt, and containing at least 80 percent milkfat by weight. One pound of butter represents the amount of cream in 10.5 to 11 quarts of milk.
Q. How many different types of butter are available in the U.S?
A. There are two main types of butter produced in the U.S. — sweet cream butter and cultured cream butter. The United States primarily produces sweet cream butter. Lightly salted butter is for general cooking and table use. Unsalted butter is mainly used for baking. Whipped butter is whipped with air to make a table spread. Cultured butter, a rich butter made from cultured cream, is popular in Europe and is available in most regions of the U.S.
Q. What's the difference between butter and margarine?
A. Butter is a natural dairy product made by churning or shaking cream until it reaches a semisolid state. Margarine is made from a single oil or a blend of oils, including animal and vegetable fats.
Q. How is butter graded?
A. The USDA grades butter first by classifying flavor intensity — judged by taste and smell — and then rating body, color and salt characteristics. The “fine and highly pleasing” flavor rates the highest Grade AA. Butter also can be graded A and B.
Q. What accounts for the giant swings in butter prices?
A. The price of butter, like the price of virtually all foods, is a result of supply and demand. When milk production slows because of drought or extremely hot weather, for example, the supply may not keep up with demand and the price can go up. Also, demand for butterfat-rich products — ice cream, cream cheese, cheese and butter — has been on the rise and sometimes spiked retail prices.
Source: Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board