Butter back in flavour in the US

PHOTO: NYTIMES

The former public-health enemy No. 1 is now being pitched as a more wholesome alternative to margarine and transfats

CHICAGO • Hipsters are dropping it into cocktails and coffee. A major food distributor is packing it into a trendy new pastry. Bob Evans Farms is slipping it into waffles and McDonald's onto its signature muffins.

What's this new craze? It is none other than your grandparents' standby, butter. Yes, butter, it turns out, is having a moment. 

Americans are forecast to eat 8 per cent more of the stuff than last year, reaching 940,000 tonnes, almost the weight of three Empire State Buildings. That is the most since at least 1967, Department of Agriculture data shows.

Once reviled as public-health enemy No. 1, butter is now being pitched as a more wholesome alternative to margarine and transfats. It helps that dietary experts are now training their sights on the evils of sugar, shifting the spotlight away from butter's artery-clogging glory.

Diners do not need much convincing when eating delights from distributor US Foods Holding, where butter sales jumped almost 7 per cent last year even as overall revenue fell slightly. The company is pitching a pastry called the Kouign Amann, a 330-calorie variation on a caramelised croissant. It is one-fourth butter.

"It has this umami quality to it where your mouth just waters and you want to keep shoving it into your face," said Mr Rick Gresh, director of United States culinary operations for AceBounce in Chicago, a restaurant that will be selling the pastry in June.

Like all diet trends, this one may be going too far, cautioned Ms Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian who manages nutrition programmes at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.

"Butter is still a fat and still has lots of calories," she said. "If you're cooking something like an egg, or you're sauteing something, I think that olive oil is a better option."

Another strike against butter: escalating costs. Futures prices on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange are up 14 per cent over the past five months and are the most expensive ever for this time of year at US$2.19 (S$3) a pound.

Butter's popularity soared in the first half of the 20th century, when supplies were plentiful. Shortages and rationing of the fat during World War II, however, paved the way for a margarine boom that peaked in the 1970s and 1980s.

No more. Every day, Siena Tavern in Chicago prepares about 500 baseball-sized, golden-fried dough balls called coccoli. The decadent US$17 appetizer is served with stracchino cheese, prosciutto di parma and truffle honey.

"It's basically butter and egg, and that's it," said Mr Benjamin Dirck, sous chef at Siena, operated by DineAmic Group, which owns five other restaurants. "Butter is what gives it the richness and makes it nice and flaky."

Italian restaurant chain Fazoli's, with 214 US outlets, is ridding its twice-baked lasagna and Alfredo sauce of oil and margarine in favour of butter.

Chief marketing officer Donna Josephson considers butter worth the extra cost. "There's an investment," she said. "But it's better."

Wendy's remains a holdout. The burger chain tried switching entirely to butter for a potato topping, but customers were not happy when it did not melt as quickly as their previous spread. The company is sticking with its old substance, made with soya bean oil, coconut oil and butter.

Bulletproof - a fashionable seller of food and supplements - recommends plopping a couple of tablespoons of unsalted grass-fed butter into coffee to "energise your mind and body".

And don't forget a classic combination: infusing alcohol with butter. In the trade, it is known as a fatwashed cocktail. At Back Bay Harry's in Boston, it is a popular concoction. One drink, called The King Of The North, graces the top of a featured list: Old Forester bourbon, Contratto Rosso and, well, butter.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2017, with the headline 'Butter back in flavour in the US'. Print Edition | Subscribe