Consumer Confusion About Fats Adds To Spread-Makers' Challenges

Last month, in response to consumer preference research, Land O' Lakes changed the shape of its famous 86-year-old, one-pound butter box west of the Rockies, putting it in sync with the shorter, stockier packages (and butter sticks) long offered by most other producers who serve that area of the country.

Now, the company -- which commands a nearly 30% share of the butter category -- is rolling out a 15-ounce size of its Spreadable Butter With Canola Oil, previously available only in eight-ounce containers, offering a bit more economy and convenience.

While these developments may not strike some as big news, every innovation is important to makers of butter and margarine producers, who today are up against a growing number of trends that are eroding sales. Sales of butter, margarine and table spreads decreased 7% between 2001 and 2006 (19% in constant 2006 prices), to $3.1 billion - and are forecast to decrease at an inflation-adjusted rate of 3.8% through 2011, according to a recent report from Mintel International, which tracks sales in food, drug and convenience stores, warehouse clubs and supercenters.



Data from Information Resources, Inc., which also tracks food, drug and mass stores (excluding Wal-Mart), show butter being hit harder than margarine, at least in dollar sales. Last year, butter sales declined by 6.6%, to $1.19 billion, although unit sales rose 2.6%, to $460.6 million.

Margarine/spreads/butter blends totaled $1.17 billion, down 2.8%, with unit sales down 7.1%, to 766 million.

A core reason that these two categories are struggling is, of course, Americans' growing concern about heart disease.

Butter sales are declining more than margarine in part because "the segment of the population that wavers between choosing butter or margarine based on the latest health news migrated to new margarine products with more healthful ingredient profiles," according to Mintel's analysts.

That would jive with IRI data showing that within both the butter and margarine/spreads/butter blends categories, the only brands that showed any significant momentum in terms of share gain were Great Foods of America Inc.'s trans-fat free, cholesterol-lowering Smart Balance and Smart Balance Light -- up 1.9% and 1%, respectively, in dollar share within their category type last year. The two brands saw sales increase by 41% and 33%, respectively.

But part of marketers' problems may be that, outside of products that can actually tout "cholesterol lowering" on their packages (Smart Balance further differentiates itself with its claim of being one of the few non-butter products that lends itself to cooking), consumers looking for the "right" heart-healthy spread may be bewildered.

For one thing, they're faced with a large and growing array of products offering reduced or low or zero trans fat and/or saturated fat. Land O' Lakes marketers, for example, say that they're ahead of the curve because few other companies offer butters with canola oil. The company's light version with canola oil has zero trans fat and two grams of saturated fat per serving; the regular version has zero trans fat and 4.5 grams of saturated fat per serving.

And more heart-healthy offerings are on the way: Unilever, which controls half of the U.S. margarine market, is thought to have plans to use a new format of Provexis' patented blood clot-reducing agent Fruitflow in spreads and cooking products, among other goods.

Choice should, of course, be a good thing for consumers and for marketers offering heart-healthy products ... if consumers are knowledgeable enough about benefits to weigh them and distinguish among them.

At present, however, many consumers aren't, according to the American Heart Association, which just recently kicked off a campaign to educate the public - funded by a $7 million settlement it won from McDonald's in a class-action suit accusing the fast-food giant of misleading consumers about the levels of trans fat in its food.

The campaign, themed "Face the Fats," seeks to educate consumers about ways to minimize trans fat in their diets while "avoiding the unintended health consequence of defaulting to more saturated fat," since both types raise bad, LDL cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease.

The campaign is centered on an "edutainment" Web site ( featuring animated characters representing the two types of bad fat, named "Sat" and "Trans."

The site also offers a fat calculator and recipes developed by celebrity chef Alton Brown.

The campaign's impact on Americans and their buying decisions remain to be seen, but a better understanding of the role that appropriate amounts of fats should play in diets would seem, on the whole, to be a positive for spread makers. .

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