Unilever is adding butter to one of its margarines. WTF?!

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Margarine has traditionally been touted as a healthy alternative to butter. After all, we’ve been told that butter is rich in saturated fat which raises cholesterol levels and, along with that the risk of cardiovascular issues such as heart disease and stroke. Spreads lower in saturated fat and rich in ‘heart-healthy’ vegetables oils, we are assured, are the way to go for those seeking to ‘look after their hearts’.

These messages have been propagated by various factions, perhaps none more so than margarine manufacturers. And a major force here has been the conglomerate Unilever. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned this week that Unilever has started enriching one of it’s spreads with, err, butter. In September, Unilever started adding butter to it’s Rama spread in Germany. You can read about this story here.

You may wonder what has caused this about-turn on Unilever’s part. How does a company that has led the vilification of butter come to then add it to one of its products? Well, as is often the way, it appears to come down to pure economics.

The fact of the matter is that sales in Unilever’s division that includes spreads have been on the slide. The article I link to states that margarine consumption per person in the US is actually at a 70-year low, while butter consumption is at a 44-year high. The trend is clear: people are turning away from margarine and towards butter.

What could be driving this? It’s hard to say for sure, but I reckon it has something to do with the fact that more and more evidence has amassed over the years that vindicates saturated fat. But also we’ve seen increasing evidence that margarine is a food product to perhaps be wary of.

The genie is out of the bottle and however much Unilever may try, there’s no putting it back in. In the article I link to, we are told that Unilever’s Foods President Antoine de Saint-Affrique told an investor conference in December that the ‘battle is over’. If, Mr Affrique is referring here to Unilever’s attempt to position margarine as a healthy alternative to butter, then I think he’s right: Unilever fought this battle long and hard, but in the end they lost.

No longer are Unilever able to (unwittingly, perhaps) pull the wool over people’s eye with rhetoric that is not supported by appropriate research. The battle is won, and it’s science wot won the day.

In recent times, butter has enjoyed something of a rehabilitation in the public’s eyes. It seems that increasing numbers of people are choosing butter, and seeing margarine for the highly-processed, chemicalised gunk (I believe) it is. To my mind, Unilever’s embracing of butter represents a desperate attempt to put their products in a better light and boost sales.

Will it work? I very much doubt it. Putting a smattering of a decent ingredient into a fundamentally crappy food does not stop it being a crappy food all of a sudden. My suspicion is that people know this, and will see Unilever’s move for what I think it is: an embarrassing about-turn and cynical ploy.

Unilever's RAMA spread - now with added butter!
Unilever’s RAMA spread – now with added butter!

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