The great grudge match of bread spreads—butter vs. margarine—has a new champion. After several decades of inexplicable margarine-dominance, the trend has finally flipped in butter’s favor.
The USDA took a look at the last 100 years of per-person American consumption of butter and margarine, including a graph comparing the rise and fall of both through the decades. At first, margarine is clearly a novelty food. But then in the ’40s, it perks up and enjoys an almost six-decade stretch of supremacy that goes right up until our current decade, when people finally started eating butter again.
So what happened to finally turn the tide? A not-unreasonable assumption is that we simply remembered how good butter tastes. But a lot of it also has to do with a series of shifts over the last century in how people think of both margarine and butter.
Today, if you look at a package of butter and a package of margarine, they’re essentially the same from the outside. But, 100 years ago, that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, margarine in the late-1800s was dyed bright pink to make it clear that it wasn’t butter (yellow dye was, in some cases, prohibited by law).
But—with butter genuinely not available during shortages in WWII—the push to make margarine a true substitute began in earnest. The packaging began to mimic that of butter; marketing campaigns claimed almost indistinguishable buttery tastes and textures at a fraction of the costs. Margarine continued to rise, and then coast, off low-saturated fat diets through the ’80s. Even after those diets fell out of favor, butter only recently began to see an uptick its reputation—an uptick that was mirrored in rising consumption over the last 10 years.
There’s also one other big takeaway, however, in the data that helps explain the shift. We eat less of both overall. One hundred years ago, the average person was consuming 20 combined pounds of butter and margarine. Today, it’s about half that. Perhaps it’s no big surprise that, when they have less to taste overall, people prefer the flavor of butter over margarine.