CHICAGO — Butter is back as a growing number of consumers turn their backs to foods perceived as artificial, such as vegetable oil-based margarine. Fresh from the farm, and churned the same way for generations, butter’s comeback may be attributed to its simplicity and its deliciousness.

Premium, culinary-inspired innovations from national brands, as well as from regional family-owned creameries and artisan culinary professionals are helping further drive the butter business. Butter/butter blend volume sales were more than 735 million lbs for the 52-week period ended April 17, 2016, representing an increase of 0.5% from the previous year, according to retail data from Information Resources, Inc., courtesy of the Midwest Dairy Association, St. Paul, Minn. Volume sales of margarines and spreads, on the other hand, were down 7.1%, tracking at almost 887 million lbs.

In terms of dollar sales, butter was about $2.8 billion (up 2.7%) during the same 52-week period, while margarine was about half ($1.4 billion), a decrease of 7.8% from the previous year. Mainstream butter, on average, is two to three times the price of margarine, with premium, culinary-inspired butters often commanding more than five times the price per lb of margarine.

Consumers are buying more butter at retail and chefs are cooking with more butter. Earlier this year, McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill., announced it switched from vegetable oil to real butter to grill eggs and breakfast meats and to spread on toast, English muffins, biscuits and bagels. Placards in stores and on drive-thru menu boards state: “We cook with real dairy.”

Butter is at a 40-year high in per-capita consumption, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2015, per-capita consumption was 5.6 lbs, up from a low of 4 lbs in 1997. Margarine per-capita consumption dropped from 8.6 lbs in 1997 to 3.6 lbs in 2010. Margarine once experienced a high of 11.5 lbs per capita in 1986.

“Butter consumption is up 25% in the last 10 years,” said Cindy Sorensen, vice-president of business development, Midwest Dairy Association. “Butter is benefiting from consumers’ desire for fresh, real and natural products.”

Butter has a very clean label. Unsalted versions simply list pasteurized cream.

Bread and butter station
Culinary-inspired flavored butters may be sold at specialty cheese counters and portioned to order. This allows consumers the opportunity to experience new flavors without a huge dollar investment.

Mainstream butter contains a minimum of 80% butterfat, while European-style butters contain 82% or more butterfat. The rest is water, with optional salt and seasonings or flavors. Butter is a water-in-oil emulsion that is solid at refrigerated temperature and softens at room temperature while still maintaining the emulsion. Margarines, on the other hand, typically become liquid at room temperature.

“The popularity of premium butters, including European-style butters, is growing due to the rise in foodies and home chefs,” Ms. Sorensen said. “Gourmet cooking is very popular and cooking shows are one of the most watched types of T.V. shows. Consumers are increasingly interested in gourmet cooking and trying new recipes. As cooking skills increase, so does awareness of the importance of high-quality ingredients, such as butter. Chefs are one of the most influential groups of people impacting consumer food trends.

“Food blogging is also very popular and there is an endless supply of new recipes available through social media. Have you ever seen a recipe video on Facebook call for margarine? It’s always butter.”

Epicurean Butter, Federal Heights, Colo., has introduced 1-oz knead, squeeze and enjoy portion packs for its culinary-inspired line of flavored butters. The finishing butters have opportunity as a stand-alone condiment in meat and poultry departments, as well as for use as an inclusion in frozen foods, home-delivery meal kits and food service. The manufacturer of premium butters also redesigned its 3.5-oz butter tubs to give them a more upscale look. With the redesign comes two new offerings: 100% organic roasted garlic and herb and organic cocoa coconut butter. These join other premium flavors such as black truffle, caramel sea salt, chili lime, honey pecan, lemon pepper, maple syrup, porcini sage, roasted garlic herb and sea salt and black pepper.

DFS Gourmet Foods, Salt Lake City, manufacturers of culinary-inspired butters such as Chef Shamy Gourmet Honey Butter in cinnamon and brown sugar, passion fruit and vanilla bean flavors, recently received regulatory approval allowing bakery departments to merchandise the premium butters in containers at ambient temperature for up to two weeks. Retailers may purchase gallon buckets and scoop butters into containers at the retail level or they may purchase pre-portioned packs from the company. Other offerings available for ambient merchandising include the company’s award-winning French onion butter and Parmesan basil garlic butter. The company also offers sauté/finishing butters in 4.5-oz retail packs and 1-lb gallon buckets for food service. Varieties are: garlic and herb, lemon dill and Southwestern.

DFS Gourmet Foods also offers ready-to-use real butter cream frosting for the retail sector, an industry first in the U.S. market, according to the company. Food service professionals have come to appreciate the ease of using the company’s refrigerated buttercream frostings, which come in chocolate and vanilla flavors. Now consumers may experience that same bakery-made taste. The frostings come in 11.2-oz containers and are sold individually or in a two-pack club-store format.

Deli butter
Premium butters often may be merchandised at ambient temperature (for up to two weeks) alongside bread in the bakery department.

Vital Farms, Austin, Texas, a company best known for its pasture-raised eggs, developed Alfresco Butter. This small-batch, slow-churned butter is made from milk from small herds of mainly Jersey and Guernsey cows, which are free to graze outdoors every day. The five-generation, family-owned company uses old-fashioned churning techniques to produce butter with 85% milkfat. It is available either unsalted or with sea salt and is sold in boxes containing two 4-oz sticks.

Batch-churned Amish Roll butter is the most recent innovation from Minerva Dairy of Minerva, Ohio. The culinary-inspired, 84% milkfat flavored butters are made from milk from pasture-raised cows and come in four flavors: garlic herb, maple syrup, pumpkin spice and smoked. Wrapped in butch-block paper, an 8-oz slice of the small-batch-churned, hand-rolled butter sells for about $6.99. Minerva Dairy currently produces artisan butter in 2-lb rolls and 1/4-lb sticks, with distribution in 47 states across the United States.

Slate Roof Creamery, Drexel Hill, Pa., has created a line of premium flavored butters. There are two savory options (lemon herb and Parmesan garlic herb) and two sweet options (sea salt caramel and wild Maine blueberry).

Minneapolis-based Land O’Lakes, with its namesake leading brand (about one-third share of all retail sales) of butter in the United States, has gone upscale with a European-style offering. Made with sweet cream, the butter is 82% milkfat. It comes either salted or unsalted in 1/2-lb boxes containing two 4-oz sticks, each individually wrapped. While European-style, super-premium butters comprise about 1% of the entire market volume, sales are rising quickly, and the category is growing, according to the company.

Champignon North America Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., importers of cheeses and other dairy products, recently made available to U.S. food service operators Hofmeister Cheese and Butter Blend. Made in Bavaria, Germany, the imported blend of cheese (40%) and butter has a smooth, thick texture and mild flavor. It may be used as a spread, as well as an ingredient to add creaminess, richness and dairy flavor to recipes. The combination of cheese and butter allows it to maintain an emulsion under heat, enabling it to be used in gratins, sauces, soups and more.

With a growing number of consumers following lactose-free or reduced-lactose diets, Challenge Dairy Products, Dublin, Calif., recognized a need for a lactose-free option that maintained the quality and flavor of regular butter. The company uses a clarification process to remove all residual milk solids and lactose. The clarified butter is then blended with canola oil to create a butter that spreads smoothly. The butter comes in 15-oz tubs and sells for $4.49.

“At Challenge, we believe anyone who wants to enjoy butter should be able to,” said Tim Anderson, senior vice-president of retail and food service. “We set out to create a butter for the lactose intolerant equal in flavor and quality to our original butter and are pleased to introduce a lactose-free butter that anyone — lactose-intolerant or not — will enjoy.”