The Unexpected Triumph of Margarine over Butter

Butter may be the darling of the food world, but margarine is thriving--at least in tubs

  • Jamie Chung for TIME

    When I bit into the roti at Harold Dieterle's new restaurant, Kin Shop, in New York City, my taste buds lit up: margarine! Like a chubbier version of Marcel Proust, I was brought back to my youth and the phosphorescent yellow sticks of butter substitute I loved so. Dieterle, of Top Chef fame, says he includes fake butter because he's never seen the dish made with the real stuff. "The West Indian guys always use margarine," he says. "It gives a nice flaky quality to the dough." I thought of margarine's distinctive butterscotch-like taste and how I missed it.

    Whatever happened to the margarine of my childhood? As Americans clogged more of their arteries in the '60s and '70s, it was hailed as a healthy alternative to butter — at a time when the evil most feared by heart-conscious consumers was saturated fat. Flash forward to 2011: butter and lard are the darlings of the food world, and trans fats — a.k.a. partially hydrogenated fats, the building blocks of traditional margarine — have been outlawed in restaurant kitchens in New York City and all of California (and are on the chopping block in 28 other states and the District of Columbia).

    It would seem to the casual observer that butter left margarine for dead. In fact, there's a greater variety of margarine in the dairy aisle than ever before. Vegetable-oil-based substitutes — or buttery spreads, as they are called by manufacturers — collectively outsold butter almost 2 to 1 in grocery stores in 2010. (That divide may grow even wider next month, when I Can't Believe It's Not Butter gets a hilariously sultry new spokeswoman, Sex and the City 's Kim Cattrall.) Buttery spreads, most of which have recently been purged of their murderous trans fats, now dominate the schmearing and sautéing sectors.

    But for the true margarine aficionado, something got lost in the butter-margarine shuffle. Margarine's once dominant stick form — which gets firmed up by hydrogenating the fat — has all but vanished, its fate sealed when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decreed that by 2006 trans fats had to be listed on the nutritional-information panel on all food products. Many health experts think trans fats are the baddest of all bad fats — essentially, cluster bombs dropped into your cardiovascular system. Without trans fats, no sticks. "Go into any major supermarket and look at the margarine and spread facings in the refrigerator case," says Richard Cristol, president of the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers. "You will likely see only a few stick packages — but many, many more tubs of buttery spreads."

    Stick margarine's more wholesome successors have taken over its role as a saturated-fat substitute, but since many cooks feel buttery spreads don't brown well, industrial-grade food-service products, like the fearsome Lo Melt, are being used to grease up griddles in restaurants from coast to coast. With few allies in restaurants or at home, stick margarine is on its way to extinction. With it go those detestable trans fats — but also a memento of the days when Americans reveled in the way this low-cost wartime substitute permeated airy white bread, forming an impossibly crisp surface on grilled-cheese sandwiches, enhancing toast with its King Midas — like effects and all the while reassuring us that we were doing something good for our hearts and for our country. Nostalgia tastes so sweet, even when it's bad for you.

    This article originally appeared in the Feb. 28, 2011 issue of TIME.