It’s been a tough week for margarine, that most maligned of breakfast spreads (not counting Vegemite). Unilever, which owns Country Crock, Flora and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, is looking into selling its spreads business and restructuring. “After a long history in Unilever, we have decided that the future of the spreads business now lies outside the group,” Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever, told The New York Times. According to Euromonitor International, U.S. sales of margarine and other spreads hit $1.8 billion in 2016, but apparently that wasn’t enough to convince the company that its margarine business was worth holding on to.
Signs of margarine’s parlous state are further evidenced by a man in Worcester, Massachusetts, named Jan Polanik, who sued Dunkin’ Donuts for serving him “margarine or a butter substitute” instead of butter over the course of four years, from 2012 to 2016. While it certainly doesn’t reflect well on Dunkin’ Donuts if the company did indeed mislead a customer, Polanik’s attitude says more about the sad state of margarine than it does about alleged corporate subterfuge.
Why can’t margarine get any respect? Given butter’s newfound popularity among health-conscious types, you might think margarine would experience some incidental appreciation. But the spread, which is made primarily from water and vegetable oil (quelle horreur!), isn’t exactly the healthiest food option. Still, I think it’s worth defending, because while it’s positioned as imitation butter, it stands on its own as a viable spread.
That’s mostly because margarine is malleable straight out of the fridge. While butter needs time to soften up, margarine can be smeared onto your morning toast without any hassle. Because it’s water-based, margarine goes great on, for instance, baked potatoes, seeping deep into the recesses of the spud, as opposed to butter, which is globbier and must be reapplied a few times as you eat.
Margarine isn’t really good for baking—butter’s got it beat on that end—but used primarily as a spread, I think margarine is a quick, convenient option that most households overlook because … well, its artery-clogging. Which I totally get. I myself have high cholesterol and wouldn’t recommend anybody eat margarine too often. But every once in awhile, it’s a quite delicious option. I recently purchased a small tub of margarine after a long time away from it and enjoyed it heartily (no pun intended).
My fond feelings for margarine probably have to do with nostalgia for my childhood. My grandmother always kept a tub of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter in her fridge—along with Cool Whip (remember Cool Whip?)—and the image brings me back to some prelapsarian time in my memory when food seemed simpler. I can’t imagine margarine will ever fit into any sensible health fad. But as far as I know, a few smears of margarine never killed anyone.