If you think it's butter, it just might be a blend

Margarine was invented in the 1860s when there wasn't enough butter to go around for Napoleon's armies. Since then, we have had the choice between butter and margarine for table use as well as for cooking and baking. Today we have additional choices for putting butter flavor in foods. Food technologists have developed dairy blends using butter, plus ways to incorporate butter or butter flavoring into other fats and oils and some foods.

Butter and margarine blends are sold from the dairy case, and ``buttery''-flavored oils and vegetable shortenings are now available on supermarket shelves. In addition, consumers can buy artificially flavored seasonings, condiments, and other foods such as butter-flavored salt or syrup.

Available are butter-flavored granules, made partly with dried butter, designed to be reconstituted and to replace butter in some instances.

Today Americans are eating twice as much margarine as butter, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The split between butter and margarine consumption was about half and half 25 years ago, the USDA reports. Total table spread consumption has decreased in this country in the last 20 years. Americans consumed about 5.1 pounds of butter and 10.4 pounds of margarine per person in 1983.

The butter blends are so new the USDA has no consumption figures compiled. But one dairy industry group, the National Cheese industry, says that the butter blends have cut more into margarine sales than butter sales, according to the group's preliminary assessments.

Prices on these products vary widely. Consumers can buy the real thing in New York City markets at $2.65 a pound. The same manufacturer offers soybean oil margarine for 95 cents a pound and a blend of 60 percent corn oil and 40 percent butter for $1.49 a pound.

Another spread with the word butter in the title, but containing no butter, is available at $1.59 a pound. This spread is made of 75 percent soybean oil. It also lists sweet cream and buttermilk among the ingredients.

One butter-flavored hydrogenated vegetable shortening is made with soybean and palm oils and priced at $1.49 a pound. The label says it is artifically flavored, and the ingredient list includes artificial butter flavor and colors.

When buying these new butter-flavored products, consumers should read the labels on each to find the source of the butter content or flavor.

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