My Margarine Taste Test: Which Brand Tastes Most Like Butter?

Did you know margarine was invented in 1869 after a challenge from Emperor Louis Napoleon III, who was looking for a satisfactory low-cost substitute for butter that could be used by commoners and his military? It was.

Over the years, butter consumption has steadily decreased in the United States. By the end of World War II, the average person consumed roughly 15 pounds of butter annually, but less than 4 pounds of margarine. However, since the 1960s, Americans have preferred the lower-cost butter substitute — so much so that, by the turn of the 21st century, the average American was consuming approximately 8 pounds of margarine per year, compared with only 5 pounds of butter.

Of course, every margarine maker wants you to believe that their spread tastes like the real thing. Obviously, they can’t all be dead-ringers. It’s only natural that some margarine brands do a — if you’ll pardon the expression — “butter” job than others, which is why I decided to conduct yet another of my taste-test experiments to sort out the posers from the créme de la créme.

How the Test Was Conducted

As with all of my experiments, like the blind ketchup taste test I conducted awhile back, I recruited a bunch of family members as an expert panel. As an added bonus, this time three additional family friends joined in the fun too, making for 12 enthusiastic volunteers in all.

Unfortunately for my dog, Major, he was forced to sit this one out. Don’t worry, though; he’s already gotten over it.

Anyway, with the panel in place, I prepared the individual samples by spreading five butter substitutes — plus one more that was real butter — on individual baguette slices. To ensure the taste test was a blind comparison, the samples were placed on plates marked ’1′ through ’6.’

The experts were asked to give each sample a traditional letter grade solely for taste. Of course, the top performers received ‘A’ grades, and the worst-tasting samples received an ‘F.’ The panel was also free to note any accompanying comments they had regarding each sample.

When comparing products, panelists who could not discern a clear taste advantage between two or more brands were allowed to give identical grades.

Finally, each panelist was asked to give their best guess as to which of the six samples was the real butter.

The Expert Panel

Before we get to the results, let’s once again meet our distinguished panel of experts:

Doris

Aunt Doris
Birthplace: London, England
Age: She’ll never tell. (No, wait … she did!)
Favorite Musical Artist: Josh Brogin

Mom

Mom
Birthplace: Youngstown, Ohio
Age: 71
Favorite Musical Artist: Kenny Rogers

Tony
Birthplace: New Haven, Connecticut
Age: 69
Favorite Musical Artist: The Bee Gees (No, wait … Carrie Underwood!)

Rose

Rose
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
Age: Old enough to be my mother-in-law.
Favorite Musical Artist: Garth Brooks (No, wait … Fleetwood Mac!)

 

Chris

Chris
Birthplace: Hemet, California
Age: Something-nine
Favorite Musical Artist: David Phelps

 

Honeybee

The Honeybee
Birthplace: Whittier, California
Age: 44
Favorite Musical Artist: Matchbox Twenty (“Because Rob Thomas is HOT!“)

Mark

Mark
Birthplace: Escondido, California
Age: 31
Favorite Musical Artist: The Beatles

Matthew

Matthew
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 15
Favorite Musical Artist: Matchbox Twenty

Nina

Nina
Birthplace: Fontana, California
Age: 13
Favorite Musical Artist: One Direction

 

LauraLaura
Birthplace: A hospital.
Age: Older than Mark
Favorite Musical Artist: Fernando Ortega (I know. I never heard of him either.)

Paul
Birthplace: Not sure. He was just a baby at the time.
Age: Younger than Aunt Doris
Favorite Musical Artist: The Monkees

Claire
Birthplace: Anytown, USA
Age: What Paul said.
Favorite Musical Artist: Steve Green

 

Introducing The Competitors

I ran down to my local Albertsons supermarket and bought five butter substitutes they were offering for sale:

  • Albertsons margarine
  • Blue Bonnet
  • Country Crock
  • I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter
  • Land o’ Lakes Buttery Spread

As an added twist, I also bought real butter bearing the Albertsons label.

Here now, in reverse order, is a summary of the, um, udderly amazing taste test results, based upon the inputs of my expert panel:

5. Albertsons Margarine

Price (per oz.): $0.12
Panel Scoring: 23 points
Grade Point Average (4-point scale): 1.92 (C-)
Judges Who Thought It Was Real Butter: 1

When it comes to the least expensive margarine in the survey — the Albertsons brand was one-third the price of its store-brand butter counterpart — apparently, you get what you pay for. The store-brand margarine was thoroughly whipped by the competition; so badly that four panel members awarded it grades of ‘D’ or ‘F.’ Then again, it wasn’t all bad, Paul thought the Albertsons margarine was delicious — so much so that he was fooled into thinking it was the real butter.

4. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter

Price (per oz.): $0.30
Panel Scoring: 28 points
Grade Point Average (4-point scale): 2.33 (C+)
Judges Who Thought It Was Real Butter: 0

Despite being the most expensive margarine surveyed, and a confident — if not cheesy — claim on the label, not a single panelist was fooled into thinking I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter was actually the real thing. Nina gave it a failing grade for being flavorless. Mark agreed, saying that it was terribly bland. Unfortunately, the positive reviews were spread a little thin, although, to be fair, my mom, Chris and Aunt Doris all gave the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter a pat on the back; they also awarded it an ‘A’ grade.

3. Blue Bonnet

Price (per oz.): $0.13
Panel Scoring: 31 points
Grade Point Average (4-point scale): 2.58 (C+)
Judges Who Thought It Was Real Butter: 1

I always thought the old advertising slogan “Everything’s better with Blue Bonnet on it” was a dangerous claim, if only because it left little, er, margarine for error. (I know. But just play along.) As for my expert panel, the second-lowest priced butter substitute in the survey performed surprisingly well, garnering above average grades from over half the tasters. In fact, the Blue Bonnet performed so well that Tony, my Mister-Fix-It father-in-law, swore that it really was butter.

2. Country Crock

Price (per oz.): $0.17
Panel Scoring: 32 points
Grade Point Average (4-point scale): 2.67 (B-)
Judges Who Thought It Was Real Butter: 2

The funnest part of doing these blind taste test experiments is watching the panelists faces when they discover their preconceived notions aren’t what they expected. The Honeybee was one of three panelists that gave Country Crock an ‘A’ grade, and she was also one of two panelists who mistook its flavor for real butter. As a result, after 15 years of using I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, we now keep Country Crock in our refrigerator. And despite Rose, Mark and Nina all noting that it was a bit too salty, the Country Crock was the only butter substitute in the survey that didn’t receive a below-average grade.

1. Land o’ Lakes Fresh Buttery Spread

Price (per oz.): $0.23
Panel Scoring: 35 points
Grade Point Average (4-point scale): 2.92 (B-)
Judges Who Thought It Was Real Butter: 2

Okay. I realize I’ve milked the dairy puns long enough, so I’ll get right to the point: the Land ‘o Lakes Fresh Buttery Spread was not only good enough to convince two panelists that it was real butter, but it also received more ‘A’ grades (four) than any of the other margarines in the survey.

The Bottom Line

As you can see from the tally sheet, the butter sample actually ended up being the panel’s cream of the crop — and fully half of the tasters correctly identified it as the real stuff.

Of course, with price premiums as much as three times higher than the least expensive substitute, those who insist on using real butter usually end up paying for it. The good news is there are several low-cost butter alternatives out there that are capable of fooling more than a few people at least some of the time.

So, ahem … spread the word.

Photo Credit: Melinda

29 comments to My Margarine Taste Test: Which Brand Tastes Most Like Butter?

  • Wow, you definitely do not read the same blogs my wife does! Lol! We haven’t eaten margarine for years because it’s not good for you! It’s a trans fat nightmare and it can lead to more problems than butter. We stick to the real stuff in our home because my wife won’t buy anything else. You don’t gorge on it because that’s not good for you either. But, eating more whole foods is insurance for your health.

    • Len Penzo

      I’m neither pro- or anti-margarine; I use butter and margarine.

      However, to assume all margarines are less healthy than butter appears to be based upon a dubious assertion. An article in Harvard Health magazine goes so far to call the butter-versus-margarine issue a false one because: 1) butter is a food that we should all eat sparingly anyway, and 2) not all margarines are created equally — some are “healthier” than others.

      In fact, according to USA Today, Unilever eliminated all those very unhealthy transfats from their margarines, including Country Crock and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter back in 2010. Of course, that’s not to say the elimination of transfats suddenly made margarine as healthy to eat as bean sprouts! But it did make it healthier — at least for those brands.

      In the end, like a lot of things in life, I think we can all agree both butter and margarine are foods that should be used in moderation. :-)

      Sources:

      http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/HEALTHbeat_062106.htm#art1

      http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2009-07-26-trans-fat-unilever_N.htm

    • Kip Noxzema

      “Real stuff”? Do you mean butter? If so, you need to know butter is loaded with saturated fat, which clogs your arteries. Government regulations limit the amount of trans-fat in margarines, which makes margarine a whole lot healthier than any butter.

  • Amanda

    After 30+ years of eating margarine (Mom always bought Country Crock. I’ve bought Blue Bonnet for 10 years.) I would not claim to be able to identify real butter at all. However, the really cheap margarine is easily identifiable for its waxy texture and lackluster taste. My husband calls me snobby, but I think it’s worth paying more for food that tastes like food.

  • We normally use country crock and real butter. They taste close enough to me that I usually use margarine because it is healthier but we do use butter for baking.

  • Hahaha…”udderly amazing” made me chuckle.

    We’ve tried different brands of butter substitutes over the years but I always come back to real butter as the tastiest.

  • NutritionTeacher

    Ah, but is the Country Crock actually healthier? The ingredients are:

    Ingredients

    Vegetable Oil Blend (Liquid Soybean Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil), Water, Whey (Milk), Salt, Vegetable Mono and Diglycerides, Soy Lecithin, (Potassium Sorbate, Calcium Disodium EDTA) Used to Protect Quality, Citric Acid, Artificial Flavor, Vitamin A (Palmitate), Beta Carotene (for Color).

    Whenever you see hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated – avoid that product! Many studies have show that these ingredients are more detrimental to your cardiovascular health than the saturated fat that is in butter.

    • Allyn

      I looked at the container of Country Crock at my mother-in-law’s and it doesn’t list any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil in it.

      It lists:
      Vegetable Oil Blend (Soybean Oil, Palm Oil, Palm Kernel oil), Water, Whey (Milk), Salt, Mono and Diglycerides, Soy Lecithin, (Potassium Sorbate, Calcium Disodium EDTA) Used to Protect Quality, Citric Acid, Vitamin A Palmitate, Beta Carotene (Color), Natural and Artificial Flavor, Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3)

      This is the Shedd’s Spread Country Crock, Original.

  • Paul N

    Instead of looking for a substitute, why not just eat butter. You can load on margarine and it just never satisfies like butter so you wind up using more. The bread gets soggy, and lets face it… they all taste like crap. Your Land O lakes just taste like a higher end crap.

    Why don’t people take a 15 minute walk or bike every day? Or anything ? Then your overall health will improve allowing you the luxury of eating butter instead of processed cooking oil.

    P.S. N.T. makes good points (a little more scientific then mine but same message).

  • We only use real butter, in very small quantities, for health reason, and of course taste…

    No margarine in our home for years.

    Churn, churn, churn (isn’t that what the Byrd’s sang???

  • Lola

    I’m really confused as to how Matthew graded the real butter an “F”???

    Count me among the ranks of those who only use butter. I try to avoid anything with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated ingredients. Also, food products can legally be labeled “0 transfat” as long as they contain less than one gram per serving. Very misleading, as a half gram here and there add up quickly, and our transfat intake should be nil. At least that’s my understanding.

    • Len Penzo

      I prefer the taste of butter too, Lola. Generally, I use butter for all my cooking. Most of the time though I use margarine if I am having a slice of bread — but only because it is easier to spread than the butter I have sitting in the refrigerator.

      As for Matthew’s ‘F’ grade for the butter — my jaw dropped when I saw that one too. I guess that makes him a bit of a contrarian! :-)

  • Edward

    Two out of 12 panelists prefer “Matchbox Twenty” as their favourite band?! This test must be rigged! ;)

  • I think they both have their purposes. Sometimes cooking with butter tastes better, and sometimes margarine is more appropriate.

  • Againstthegrain

    Butter was framed. Butter is a real food that contains important fat-soluble Vitamin A (when produced by cows on pasture) and helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins from other foods, like green vegetables. Is it mere coincidence that chronic, degenerative diseases that were practically unheard of prior to 1900 skyrocketed in the 20th century as hydrogenated industrial seed oils were flavored and marketed to unsuspecting consumers (the oils that margarine is made from are better suited for paint and machinery lubrication) replaced butter and other traditional natural fats?

    I grew up with margarine, one of few child-feeding decisions I think my mother really bungled badly (another is skimmed milk). I eagerly indulged in butter & whole milk at friends’ houses, though, and immediately switched to butter once on my own. I married a guy from England who uses a piece of aged cheddar to scoop soft butter like a dip, so that about sums up his stand on margarine. We have a butter-only household, and the likes of Land o’ Lake won’t cut it either.

    My own butter education began not long after I was married when my husband’s family debated the relative merits of English, Danish, Norwegian, French, and Irish butter. I was gobsmacked that there could be discernible differences in butter. Since then I’ve eaten a lot of butters from a lot of places and, seriously – butter is not generic – it varies with the cow’s diet/the pasture grass varieties/local soil, the cow’s breed, how the butter was prepared at the creamery, and how fresh/old it is. Only eating the unremarkable lily-white sticks from American supermarkets is like only ever eating white sandwich bread.

    I splurge sometimes with the fantastic golden-yellow butter from Jersey cows at the farmers market or Amish butter from the food buyer’s club I belong to, and economize with bars of Irish Kerrygold butter from Trader Joe’s for every day cooking and baking.

    I don’t care how cheap margarine is or how well its food chemicals fool some people’s tastebuds, margarine will never be a good way for me to economize.

    • Len Penzo

      Thanks for the lesson on butter! That’s really interesting to know that not all butters are created equally.

      Like you, I grew up with margarine in my house — although it seems we always had butter for holiday meals. As for the moo juice, we always drank whole milk when I was growing up. Sometimes my dad would buy “Extra Rich” milk as a special treat. (It was even richer than whole milk; I’m not sure they even sell that kind anymore — at least I haven’t seen it in a long long time.)

      Needless to say, being raised on milk with higher fat content, as a kid I could never drink anything less than whole milk! To this day I can’t stomach skim milk or even 1 percent milk, although my family drinks 2 percent now, and I’ve learned to like it.

      I remember making butter as a school project back when I was in 6th grade. The biggest thing I remember was how much work it took to produce.

  • Allyn

    Margarines containing trans fats should be avoided at all costs, but honestly, you’re really better off eating butter even though the crap that passes for butter in the supermarket hasn’t seen a cow in so long it wouldn’t know what a moo was if it heard one. Once you’ve had real, fresh butter, that pale stuff in the supermarket just doesn’t cut it anymore.
    Len, to solve your spreadability problem with butter, get yourself a butter crock bell. Using the bell, you can keep butter at room temperature so it’s always ready to spread.
    http://www.amazon.com/s?ie=UTF8&keywords=butter%20crock%20bell&page=1&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Abutter%20crock%20bell#/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=butter+bell++crock+&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Abutter+bell++crock+
    I make my own butter, and really, it isn’t all that much work.

  • Http://firstgenamerican.com

    We use land o lakes butter and margarine. Margarine solely because it’s easier to spread when cold. I made the mistake of stocking up on a year’s worth of margarine when it was on super duper sale and it does lose a lot of flavor quality after about 6 months.

    Great review. Love these.

  • joe

    Lucky that I am, for many years I have used neither butter nor margarine.

  • Againstthegrain

    I second the Butter Bell suggestion. It’s a fantastic container when high ambient temperatures will melt butter into a puddle. Change the water at least once daily, though, and use cool water.

    For those who claim butter isn’t very spreadable, when it isn’t über hot, just leave a day or two’s (or a week’s) worth of butter out at room temperature on a plate or shallow dish. Covered, of course, to keep dust off (& flies or whatever).

    Re-wrap the remainder well (butter can absorb strong odors) and refrigerate it until more is needed (well-wrapped surplus butter purchased in bulk can be frozen for longer storage times). Solving the spreadability problem is really that simple.

    Fresh butter won’t go off or turn moldy at room temp over a few days. I’ve never had room temperature butter spoil, even when I lived in the southeast with those long hot humid summers. If butter is consumed at a really slow rate (which I can hardly fathom), keep less out. (the same holds true for eggs – in the UK and Europe eggs aren’t even sold chilled – they are on regular shelves in the center of the store).

    In the warm regions of the Indian subcontinent, butter is slowly cooked down to make ghee, which keeps very well without refrigeration. I often use ghee* for greasing pans and cooking because without the milk solids it won’t easily go rancid, turn brown, or burn with prolonged cooking at higher temps (great for pancakes, btw). I don’t refrigerate ghee, so it’s always easy to scoop out of the jar for sautéing or greasing a baking pan. Clarified butterfat (which is what is left after melting and the milk solids are skimmed off) has a rather long shelf life because the saturated fatty acids are quite stable and resistant to rancidity (one reason I don’t eat foods made with industrial seed oils like soy, corn, & cottonseed is that they are high in polyunsaturated fats and therefore become rancid and toxic quite easily).

    Ghee is really easy to make at home (lots of online instructions). Sometimes I buy it, but often I melt down 3-6 pounds of grassfed Kerrygold unsalted butter to make ghee at home. I store the ghee in ordinary sterilized wide mouth pint sized jars for months at at time in the pantry closet. I screw the lids on while the ghee is still quite hot, which creates a slight vacuum seal that will pop the first time the jar is opened, though it isn’t as strong a seal as a commercially sealed jar, but that doesn’t seem to be necessary like it is with other canned food preserves.

    As much as I adore butter, though, I’ve got three huge peeves about it – the first is contaminated butter from crumbs, jelly, etc. I either use care with my knife to avoid contamination or else get a clean knife. I finally broke my teenager of that habit (with sour cream, yogurt, jam & PB, too). The next is putting a new block of butter into the dirty emptied butter dish instead getting out a clean dish (still working on breaking the other two members of my household of this habit). The other is keeping the butter in the paper or foil wrapper until it’s used up. My husband’s entire family does this (thankfully my husband does not). The block of butter & its buttery foil wrapper is really messy and gross by the time the 250 g (8+ oz) block of butter is used up.

    • Allyn

      Againstthegrain wrote, “(the same holds true for eggs – in the UK and Europe eggs aren’t even sold chilled – they are on regular shelves in the center of the store).”

      That’s true. Fresh eggs that haven’t been washed can be kept at room temperature for as long as three months and still remain fresh. Eggs sold in our supermarkets have been washed and must be refrigerated and consumed within a short period of time.

      When an egg is laid, it is encased in a covering called the ‘bloom’. As long as the bloom remains intact, bacteria will not penetrate the egg’s shell. Washing removes the bloom, and since the shell is porous, the egg is susceptible to bacteria that will spoil it. Refrigeration keeps the washed egg as fresh as possible, but the protective coating has been removed and the egg will not stay fresh for very long.

      In the case of fresh eggs, wash them as you need them just before using them and then wash your hands before handling other food products (because, you know. . . .have you ever looked at a chicken’s nest?)

    • Allyn

      Againstthegrain wrote, “Change the water at least once daily, though, and use cool water.”

      I change mine every couple of days and it seems to be okay. Also, when you pack the bell, make sure there are no air pockets in the butter. If you leave pockets in the butter, the butter can be suctioned out of the bell when you lift it out of the water, leaving you holding an empty bell and having a big glob of butter floating in the water.(Yeah, I’ve *never* done that.)

  • Invite me to SoCal when the beer tasting begins. I promise to be the one who HOPS right on a plane….

  • With the increasing prices of butter in the market, I also use margarine as a substitute. Though I have been experimenting on various margarine brands to see which one tastes closest to butter, I think I would give Land ‘o Lakes Fresh Buttery Spread a shot

  • [...] beat either of those two giants in a blind taste test.How the test was conductedAs with most of my other taste tests, I recruited a bunch of eager family members. As usual, my dog Major took part in the test too. And [...]

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