Is there any ingredient that conjures up as much love — and guilt — this time of year as butter?
According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, about 25 percent of all US butter sales take place in November and
December, when home chefs are preparing their office Christmas cookies and presents of spiced nuts and rugelach. The Calorie Control Council warns that when you sit down for that big Yuletide meal, you could end up downing the equivalent of 3 1/2 sticks by the end of the night.
And that might not be such a bad thing.
“Butter is delicious,” nutritionist Sally Fallon Morell — one of the ingredient’s biggest boosters — told The Post. “It is the queen of fats, the healthiest fat in nature. We should be eating more of it!”
Since the first cattle arrived in Plymouth Rock, in 1624, the US has had an intense on-again, off-again love affair with butter, praised as virtuous and nutritious in some periods and decried as corrupt, unhealthy and even poisonous in others.
At butter’s peak, in the 1920s, the average American consumed 18 pounds — or about 72 sticks — of the stuff per year. At its nadir, in 1992, it had dropped to 4 pounds. Americans had become so fat-phobic that they largely banished it from their refrigerators. As recently as 2006, margarine sales outpaced butter’s. Even the holidays were sadly devoid of that luscious golden fat, as families trotted out tubs of Country Crock.
“Americans were programmed to equate butter and fat with heart disease and poor health,” said Elaine Khosrova, author of the new book “Butter: A Rich History” (Algonquin Books), which delves into the ways Americans were tricked into adopting a low-fat diet.
But new studies have shown that consuming butter — within reason — is not only not bad for you, but beneficial, full of vitamins and healthy fatty acids that help prevent tooth decay, cancer and even (gasp!) obesity. Americans seem to be responding with typical gluttonous gusto. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2015 alone the average person consumed 23 sticks of butter, the highest amount since World War II, if not quite reaching Roaring ’20s levels.
“The attitude toward butter is radically changing, especially among younger people,” Khosrova said. “Even in my small town of 3,000 people in upstate New York, our supermarket has six different kinds of cow butters.”
Butter has been around since ancient times. Romans used it to treat coughs and aching joints, while Hindus offered gifts of clarified butter, or ghee, to the god Krishna for his birthday. But mostly, the irresistible fat — created by churning fresh or fermented cream or milk and then skimming the fat off the top — has been enjoyed for its rich flavor. When the pilgrims traveled to the New World, they brought cows on the ship not just to plow the land but with the idea of making butter.
With the advent of the cream-separating machine in 1878, butter production became big business. But with little regulation, bad, rancid butter at cheap prices soon proliferated in the market. “It was not always a sanitary product . . . but poor-quality butter was all some people could afford,” Khosrova said.
That’s when margarine stepped in. Invented in 1869, when Napoleon III offered a cash prize to anyone who could create a cheap, plentiful butter substitute for poorer classes and the military, the substance — made with beef fat mixed with milk and salt — never took off in France.
But the prize-winner, chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, was able to sell the patent in America to the US Dairy Company in 1871. Dyed a golden color to look more like real butter, margarine proved a more palatable alternative to the low-grade “dirty” butter sold to the lower classes.
By 1882, dairy farmers began to see it as a legitimate threat. Powerful butter-makers lobbied to have margarine banned and succeeded in several states, though those laws were swiftly struck down as unconstitutional. A few years later, however, the Federal Margarine Act enacted a 2 cent tax on margarine and charged those who made or sold it hefty fees.
By 1900, 30 states had banned yellow margarine; five states even passed laws mandating it to be dyed pink.
While the Great Depression made butter almost prohibitively expensive, it was World War II that finally ended the war on margarine. The US lost much of its farm labor as men went off to Europe to fight, and the government had to ration it and lift regulations on margarine.
There was a big cultural shift, too. Post-war Americans were craving stability and uniformity, and those desires extended to their food. “There was an infatuation with foods that always looked the same. That were packaged well and looked neat and tidy and perfect,” Khosrova said. “People didn’t want rustic-looking food. They wanted superior ‘scientific’ commercialized food.”
Even beloved chef Julia Child couldn’t revive butter’s reputation. Americans delighted in watching the unabashed Francophile douse dishes in decadent beurre on her TV show “The French Chef,” which ran from 1963 to 1973. But her fans still regarded butter as an unhealthy extravagance. “[Child] had a wide audience, but she never took on [fat and butter] scientifically,” Khosrova said. “It was all about the pleasure, and that’s how Americans saw it: a guilty pleasure.”
That was largely due to research by one physiologist named Dr. Ancel Keys, who was beginning to link heart disease with the consumption of fat, particularly butter. Keys compared diets between weak-hearted Americans and Brits with their healthier counterparts in Japan and Italy and found that those who suffered from heart disease ate significantly more fat. (His study conveniently eliminated such butter-loving, heart-healthy nations as France, Holland, Switzerland and Norway.)
In 1961, Time magazine put Keys on its cover, promoting his version of a healthy diet: “70 percent of calories from carbohydrates and 15 percent from fat.”
Then, in 1977, Sen. George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs published dietary guidelines that asked Americans to cut fat and increase carbs. “That’s when anti-fat became gospel,” Khosrova said. By the end of the 20th century, the average American was consuming just 4.5 pounds of butter per year, compared with 17 pounds at the turn of the century.
Meanwhile, Americans were getting sicker, and fatter.
“It wasn’t until the 21st century, when Americans were becoming obese and more diabetic, that headlines began to appear dismantling anti-fat,” said Khosrova. Ironically, it turned out that trans fats — found commonly in partially hydrogenated oils, and margarine — were the real culprits for Americans’ bad hearts and expanding waistlines.
Why did it take so long? Food lobbies that were making a pretty penny on vegetable and soybean oils, for one. But also, it was embarrassing. After all, the government had used anti-fat dogma to influence school policy and health legislation and federal dietary guidelines. And the governing theory — that butter would solidify in the body — was a hard one to shake, even if it turned out to be erroneous. According to Khosrova, “Fat is actually broken down to basic molecules and the body rebuilds it based on what it needs.”
Morell — whose book “Nourishing Fats: Why We Need Animal Fats for Health and Happiness” comes out in January — said she consumes four tablespoons of (all-natural, grass-fed) butter a day. But much of the science suggests that having 30 to 35 percent of your calories come from fat is just fine.
“Your body will tell you when you’ve had enough,” Morell said. “Unlike carbs, which you can keep eating without feeling anything, if you eat too much dairy you start to feel queasy.”
And it’s trendy, too. Restaurants — such as Momofuku Ko in the Lower East Side — offer their own house-made butter for a pretty penny. Small-batch creameries sell irregularly-shaped lumps of butter packaged in precious, individual wrappers. There are even butter-making kits and small glass churns people can buy to produce their own cream.
There are, however, still some stubborn holdouts clinging to their margarine. “Many baby boomers still can’t bring themselves to enjoy it,” Khosrova said. “They hear me, they read the book, and they still say, ‘No butter: It’s going to clog up my arteries!’ ”