The word has spread on margarine. Unilever, owner of brands such as Flora and Stork, is sliding away from this “declining segment”. As part of its “active portfolio management”, the Anglo-Dutch company plans to “exit spreads”.
Unilever, which also owns brands like Dove soap, Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream and the famously divisive Marmite, is under pressure to improve profit margins, and sales of spreads and margarines have been, well, a bit soft.
So in a beautiful piece of corporate break-up speak, Unilever has “decided that the future of the spreads business now lies outside the group”. Not at all coincidentally, many consumers had already concluded that their future lies outside their kitchens.
A radical about-turn in the medical consensus is to blame. Margarine, derived from plant oils, was once the stuff people ate because butter was unaffordable or unavailable. Then, in the 1970s, the dairy industry found itself having to spend more and more of its time fiercely denying links with heart disease, while margarine entered a happy spell as super-sub and all-round health saviour.
“Polyunsaturates” was probably the longest word I knew in the 1980s. I didn’t have a clue what they were, only that Flora was extremely proud to be high in them.
But the saturated fats found in butter were eventually exonerated. In June 2014, Time put the headline “Eat butter” on its front cover and illustrated it with a golden yellow curl. Butter was no longer “the enemy”.
Unilever could separate its food operations, which contain stagnant brands such as Flora spreads, from home- and personal-care units. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Margarine brands, once marketed as the healthy alternative, have not only lost the upper hand to “natural”, “authentic” butter, they have been forced to reformulate their products to remove a new bogeyman: trans fats.
No trans fats
Today, spreads and margarines are at pains to say they contain no trans fats. Unilever’s I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter is now called I Can’t Believe It’s So Good, presumably because too many people really don’t.
Some brands target the dairy-intolerant and other consumers who feed the growing “free from” market. But the damage from the trans fat debacle has lingered.
As ever, the vintage television ads on YouTube are a treasure trove of the weird, ironic and plain incredible. Flora was once marketed as “margarine for men”, a somewhat bolder positioning than that conjured up by its current tagline, “powered by plants”.
The ads were not aimed at men, but at supermarket-gracing women. A 1981 television spot with a hypnotic Terry Wogan voiceover told the story of a woman who had decided to “change her husband” to a Flora man. “Is there a Flora man in your home?” another ad asked.
“Flora men” were all around, and “their wives know they like that light, delicate taste”. There was no word on what became of Flora men who had no wives.
It is long forgotten now, but in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, the first product to bear her “memorial logo” was a special “celebratory” tub of Flora with the word “Thanks” on the plastic lid. The promotion, which had a charity tie-in, was regarded as tacky at the time. But it also feels of its time.
Perhaps everything just has its day. Back in 1877, margarine was such a novelty, it wasn’t even called margarine yet. “The manufacture of artificial butter is daily becoming a more and more industry in the state of New York,” the The Irish Times noted, referring to a “concoction” by the name of “oleo-margarine”.
In its early years, it was also known as “butterine”, and to the defensive traders of “pure butter”, butterine merchants were the enemy with which they should not be confused.
Some 23 outlets of Dunkin’ Donuts are currently being sued by a Massachusetts man for allegedly serving him something that wasn’t butter on his bagels for four long years. These cases are almost as old as margarine. The Margarine Act 1887 was passed “for the better prevention of the fraudulent sale of margarine”. Prosecutions for “butter fraud” were in and out of the courts.
(Incidentally, margarine is not “marjarine”, according to the last official update on the subject from The Irish Times. “The ‘g’ in margarine should be pronounced like the same letter in Margaret,” wrote the editor of this publication in 1917, following correspondence from “Troubled One”.)
Unilever may be moving on, but it’s surely not beyond spreads and margarines to reinvent themselves again, even if the carbohydrates traditionally used as vehicles for butter and non-butter are battling their own image difficulties.
At the turn of the 20th century, Buttle’s Margarine, produced near Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, promoted itself with the line “It Pleases the Most Fastidious”.
Now this is the kind of fine language that should be revived by all advertisers immediately.