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Americans Renew Their Love For Butter

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We now continue our coverage of the butter shortage. OK, a possible butter shortage. If you're lucky enough to have some, slather it on your toast and settle in for this encore presentation of a story from NPR's Weekend Edition by NPR's Allison Aubrey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: There's a growing number of Americans who seem to believe that everything is better with butter. Ashleigh Armstrong says she's definitely in this camp.

ASHLEIGH ARMSTRONG: Yes. I love butter. Everything's better with butter. I say it all the time we're eating.

AUBREY: Ashleigh's in her late 20s. I caught up with her at a cafe in Washington's Union Station. She and her partner, Simon Anderfuhren, who's French, were waiting to board a train to New York, and they're eating a buttery snack with their afternoon coffee.

ARMSTRONG: I am just breaking off a nice, hearty piece of this croissant.

SIMON ANDERFUHREN: Actually it's pretty good for an American croissant.

ARMSTRONG: It's flaky - it just creates this wonderful dough in your mouth while you're chewing it. It's delicious.

AUBREY: Now Ashleigh's butter habit represents a paradigm shift in the U.S. that's been taking place gradually.

HARRY BALZER: Americans are eating more butter. There's no question about it.

AUBREY: That's Harry Balzer, an analyst for the marketing researchers firm NPD Group, that tracks Americans' eating habits. He says back in the early 1990s, only about 30 percent of households he surveyed were cooking with butter or spreading it on their morning toast. What most families were eating was margarine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARGARINE AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Imperial. Only our taste deserves the crown.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARGARINE AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Taste Parkay Margarine. The flavors says - better.

AUBREY: But jump ahead to today, and many Americans families are no longer using margarine.

BALZER: The increase in butter consumption in America coincides with the decline in margarine consumption. As a matter of fact, the increase in butter is really a story about the decrease in margarine.

AUBREY: So what explains this change? Well, for years Americans had been getting the message to avoid animal fats to protect our hearts. Cholesterol was the nutritional bogeyman, and margarine is cholesterol-free.

BALZER: Back in 1992, 44 percent of all Americans were concerned about the amount of cholesterol that was in our food. Today that number is 27 percent. It's dropped quite a bit.

AUBREY: And this is likely because the science of fat has really evolved. There was the revelation that trans fats, found in lots of margarine, were really bad for us, as well as the new evidence that eating some animal fat is not so bad. There's also a growing movement towards clean, less-processed foods. That's another reason croissant lover Ashleigh Armstrong likes butter.

ARMSTRONG: I just want the good stuff. I'm not going to have the fake stuff. Butter is more for me.

AUBREY: Now, you might assume that the rebound of butter would explain some of the news stories that have hinted at a possible butter shortage. But turns out no, we're not eating that much more. What's really gobbling up supplies of American-made butter is the appetite of butter-lovers in other countries, including Egypt and Morocco. Turns out exports are way up. Here's dairy economist Brian Gould of the University of Wisconsin.

BRIAN GOULD: Since the early 2000s, we've basically gone from zero exports of butter to where it's 10 or 11 percent of our market. That's an incredible growth rate.

AUBREY: Now, as for the stories making the rounds on the Internet about putting butter into your tea or coffee, well Ashleigh's boyfriend Simon had this to say about it.

ANDERFUHREN: In France, we put butter on bread and then we dip it in the coffee.

AUBREY: So maybe that was the genesis of the whole butter in coffee thing.

ANDERFUHREN: Maybe but we never just pour a spoon of butter in the coffee. Never.

AUBREY: So here's to good bread with your butter and coffee. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.