1. Margarine surpassed butter as the preferred American table spread in the late 1950s.
2. There are several popular theories explaining this shift. None of them are supported by the data. Specifically, they are either too early (‘war rationing’) or too late (‘taxes and market distortion,’ ‘counter-culture,’ and ‘health claims’).
3. Americans chose margarine because it was cheap.
It is often said that Americans switched to margarine during World War II, as butter was scarce and rationed (starting in 1943).
Others suggest that unfair taxes on margarine distorted the market and artificially depressed demand for the product. When those taxes were lifted in 1950, margarine sales took off.
Another theory is that Americans abandoned butter in the 1960s. A growing counter-culture led a large segment of the public away from things ‘traditional American’, including the traditional American diet of red meat and heavy cream.
Others would point out that this change was supported by a growing chorus of (mistaken) advice, from health experts, telling Americans to avoid dietary cholesterol, or maybe fat, or maybe animal fat, or maybe saturated fat.
This formulation no doubt explains a number of shifts in the American diet. But it doesn’t work for butter.
In fact, none of these theories work. Look for yourself:
Americans margarine consumption spiked after WWII. Margarine sales spiked before the repeal of margarine taxes. And margarine surpassed butter long before the rise of the counter-culture or broad public concerns about animal fats and heart disease.
Dairy prices were even worse, nearly doubling between 1946 and 1948. Meanwhile, margarine was cheap and plentiful.
The lifting of margarine-specific taxes had a limited effect. Before the repeal of the taxes, margarine was still half the cost of butter. With repeal, in 1950, margarine prices relative to butter stayed low, but the repeal of the taxes didn’t significantly change the market.
Quality and appearance improved as well. The early 1950s saw the roll-back of American anti-margarine laws that prevented manufacturers from dying the product yellow. Manufactures also improved their recipes, making the product creamier.
In the UK and Australia, laws that capped margarine production also fell away. By the mid-1950s, in all three nations, the product was cheap, attractive, and heavily advertised. And more popular than butter.
Remember, we also don’t see broadly accepted health claims about margarine over butter in any of the contemporary materials from WWII, the late 1940s, or the mid-1950s. These (ultimately illusory) health concerns wouldn’t become conventional wisdom until the 1960s, several years after margarine was already America’s preferred table spread.