Normally, butter is only spreadable if left out of the fridge for those blessed few months of the year when the cold will not make it hard, or the heat turns it into a puddle of rancid yellow oil. Consequently, many people, tired of massacring a poor piece of bread while trying to spread it with butter straight out of the fridge, prefer their butter to be spreadable on demand. Many a set of cross-words have been exchanged in families between those reaching for the butter to make a sandwich, and those who’d put it in the fridge a few hours ago.
One way to keep butter at a more predictable spreading consistency at room temperature is by using a Butter Bell© type of butter dish. But with the water needing to be changed every day, many people consider that too high maintenance. One of the things that increased the popularity of margarine in the last quarter of the 1900s was the advent of spreadable tub margarine, which you stored safely in the fridge, but which always came out at the perfect consistency for spreading. This increased the pressure on the dairy industry, as even die-hard butter loyalists came to be aware that somewhere out there, there was a better way.
New Zealand was the first off the mark with butter that is spreadable out of the fridge. It is made through fractionation, which basically means choosing and recombining parts of the butterfat. The New Zealand process starts with concentrated butter. It’s slowly heated to liquify it, then slowly cooled in such a way that the milkfat portions separate. You end up with some which are solid, and some which are liquid. The temperature of the butter is then brought down to about that of refrigerator, and the portion of the butterfat which is still soft at that temperature is collected. The butter which stayed soft is then recombined with that which went hard, often in a ratio of 3 to 1. Then some “regular” butter is added for taste and skim milk to bring the overall butterfat level down to desired levers (80% butterfat, 82% butterfat, etc.) It is then mixed well to ensure proper blending and consistency. No non-dairy ingredients are used, and the process is all physical — no chemicals are used. The end result is 100% butter.
Another class of Spreadable Butter is grouped as “butter-based spreads.” These are aimed not only at the spreadable market, but the low-fat one as well. In France, these range between 20 and 41% butterfat; in Switzerland, the butterfat content can range wildly between 10 and 82%.
In the UK, if the butter-based spread is less than 39% butterfat, it must be called something along the lines of: Dairy spread x%, Low fat dairy spread x%, or Light dairy spread x%.
In Australia, butter-based spreads are called “Reduced Fat Dairy Spreads.” The fat content can range from 30 to 60%, but at least half of whatever fat is present must be butterfat. Beyond that, water, milk proteins, starter cultures, herbs, spices, gelatin, vitamins, sugar or salt can be added.
In Australia, anything below 30% butterfat content is called a “Low Fat Dairy Spread.” Milk, vegetable protein, flavouring, herbs, spices, vitamins, sugar, gelatin or starter cultures can be added.
The Fractionation technique was developed at the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute (NZDRI) under a research team led by a Dr Robert Norris and a Mr David Illingworth. Commercial production started in July 1991 at a plant in Te Puke, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. The product was launched in the UK later that same year.
The product was very successful, and was a big boost to the New Zealand dairy industry. Their market in the UK had been hurt when the UK entered the European Union (EU). The market recovered somewhat when New Zealand got a special break on the tariffs placed on butter imported into the EU. With the advent of their spreadable butter product, however, the EU decided that spreadable butter wouldn’t be eligible for the reduced tariff rate. The EU say that it wasn’t exempt because it wasn’t manufactured directly from cream (it’s manufactured from concentrated butter.) New Zealand took the EU to the World Trade Panel, but the EU caved in and decided to allow the spreadable butter in at the same rate as regular butter. By 2001, however, the point was mute, because New Zealand had begun making its spreadable butter by adding about 30% canola oil, which with the addition of non-dairy fats, took it out of the butter category anyway.
In 1999, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia announced its approach to pure spreadable butter. It involves giving the cows a special diet including canola and soybean which helps ensure that more of the “softer” fats in cow’s milk actually come out in the milk instead of getting broken up by the cow’s first stomach, as they would otherwise.
In the same year, 1999, an Irish company called “Kerrygold Spreadable Butter” launched 100% pure spreadable butter (though it contained 2% salt.) In 2003, they decided to rename it to “Kerrygold Softer Butter”, to dissociate themselves from all the other brands calling themselves “Spreadable Butter” which were actually butter / vegetable oil blends, rather than the pure butter that Kerrygold was.
In 2003 Dramona in the UK also launched a spreadable butter that went back to being pure butter, without added oil.
In Canada, researchers looked at techniques involving combining the butter with oil, but it didn’t stay solid if left at room temperature. They also looked at “chemical interesterification”, rearranging the fatty acids in butter (though this leaves an odd taste), or “enzymatic interesterification”, which doesn’t leave such an odd taste. In the end, Canadian producers managed to copy the New Zealand added-oil approach. Gay Lea brands launched the first spreadable butter in Canada in 2004, by adding about 30% canola oil to butter. Butter from New Zealand, including New Zealand spreadable butter, can’t be imported into Canada owing to restrictions to protect Canadian dairy producers, largely in Quebec. Canadians, however, are hoping to export their spreadable butter to other countries — presumably hoping to find other countries that don’t practice the same kinds of restrictions on dairy product imports as Canada does.
In 2003, spreadable butter with added canola oil was launched in America by Land O’Lakes.