Health-conscious shoppers choose organic spreads
Whether it's for slathering on toast or baking bread, consumers now have a wide array of butters and margarines to choose from. And when making that choice, many customers are opting for organic. What's most important about organic butter and margarine isn't what manufacturers put in them�it's what they leave out. Organic butter and margarine are free of the potentially dangerous pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones that can be found in conventional versions. Also, organic margarine doesn't contain the chemicals and solvents that are found in nonorganic varieties.
"When you're talking about butter you're talking about milk and the dairy production system," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. "So, that milk is creamed into butter, and if it's organic, it has strict regulations on how the cows are fed�with no growth hormones, no antibiotics and 100 percent organic feed. Organic dairy production is also better for the environment and is a more humane practice for raising the animals."
Horizon Organic's Marketing Director Gwen Scherer concurs and says that research shows that one of the biggest consumer concerns is exposure to chemicals. "Choosing organic butter is one way consumers can help to reduce exposure to added chemicals," she says. "Organic farmers do not use harmful chemicals that can pollute our air, water and food. Instead, they use sustainable farming techniques, like crop rotation and composting, to improve soil fertility, and they use nontoxic materials to control pests. [Organic] farmers also don't give their cows added growth hormones or antibiotics to boost production or [as a shortcut to] keep them healthy. And they're committed to the humane treatment of animals, so they keep their herds in good health by giving them certified organic feed, fresh air and access to pasture."
It's especially important for consumers to choose organic when it comes to butter, because it's particularly susceptible to pesticide contamination. According to the Pesticide Action Network of North America, nonorganic butter was ranked first as the food most contaminated with persistent organic pollutants, a class of toxic chemicals that are some of the most dangerous produced. "POPs are toxic chemicals that stay in the environment and our bodies for months, years, sometimes even decades. They are passed from link to link in the food chain, and from one generation to the next through fetal exposure and breast milk," says Kristin Schafer, program coordinator at PAANA.
"POP chemicals are 'lipophilic,' meaning they are attracted to fatty tissues and substances like milk," Schafer says. "So the POP chemicals carried by a dairy cow�which she has gained from her mother, as well as from eating contaminated feed�would be particularly concentrated in her milk. This would be concentrated again in the process of manufacturing butter." Schafer says that organic butter, on the other hand, avoids contamination with POPs that are in current use, such as the pesticide lindane, which is used to treat conventional corn seed, among other crops.
There are also marked differences between conventional and organic margarines. Consider where the oil in the margarine comes from and how it's grown. "The oils in organic margarines are derived from crops that have been grown according to organic regulations, with minimal chemicals allowed," says DiMatteo. "And with organic margarine, the oil cannot be processed using solvents to extract oils from crops, which is a common process in extracting conventional oils.
"Conventional margarines and spreads tend to be made with poor-quality, partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats," says Ellen Markham, director of education and training for Spectrum Organic Products in Petaluma, Calif., a manufacturer of organic margarine. "The only way that a consumer can be assured that the ingredients are both pesticide-free and nongenetically engineered is if the ingredients are organic."
At PCC Natural Market, a Seattle-based chain of stores that carry a mix of conventional and organic foods, an organic butter comes in near the top, at second place, for sales. Says Trudy Bialic, manager of public affairs for the chain, "I think that the most important thing for consumers to realize is that if they can't buy everything organic, they should buy organic butter because it's one of the foods that's really going to make a difference and be better for you." Bialic adds that PCC uses education to get the word out to customers about what makes organic butter better for them. "We have a monthly newspaper, as well as educational classes, so we're proactive in educating our customers about the advantages of a product like organic butter," she says. "That's one of the reasons they're buying organic butter at our stores�the more they know, the more they buy."