Food

Food-Loving French Are Bereft of Their Butter

Their fatter, shorter-lived American counterparts eat a lot less -- and aren't dealing with a crisis-level shortage.

C'est mal.

Photographer: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

France is all out of butter at the moment. Reports Bloomberg's Paris bureau chief, Geraldine Amiel:

Soaring global demand and falling supplies have boosted butter prices, and with French supermarkets unwilling to pay more for the dairy product, producers are taking their wares across the border. That has left the French, the world’s biggest per-capita consumers of butter, short of a key ingredient for their sauces and tarts.

There's been talk of a European butter shortage for months now, and the cause seems to be mainly the usual agricultural boom-bust-boom cycle: The 2007-2008 financial crisis hammered the dairy industry as global demand temporarily swooned, and in recent years European Union dairy market reforms brought prices down again. All that led dairy farmers to produce less. But global demand for butter has kept trending upward, so prices have jumped. Add in some uniquely French characteristics -- mainly the apparent refusal of the country's supermarket chains to raise prices on butter -- and you get episodes of butter hoarding and empty shelves. A crisis, yes, but one that will surely pass soon.

That line about the French being the world's biggest per-capita consumers of butter caught my attention, though. Just how much butter are we talking about here? Eight kilograms (17.6 pounds) per person per year, according to a handy roundup of global butter consumption compiled by the Canadian Dairy Information Centre. Somebody on Reddit with the username RyanMAGA doesn't think that's a lot -- "just 1 stick every five days per person." The math is correct (we're talking about a U.S.-standard quarter-pound stick), but one stick per person every five days actually does seem like a lot. My wife and I are very pro-butter. We buy it in 5-pound blocks from the farmer's market. 1 But we did some calculating and still think our annual consumption tops out at 6, maybe 7 kilograms each.

Overall, U.S. per-capita butter consumption is about one-third of France's. And lots of other countries out-butter us:

Spreading It Thick

Per-capita butter consumption, in kilograms, 2015

Sources: International Dairy Federation and Statistics Canada

Some of this is just historical differences in regional cuisines. Northern Europeans and South Asians cooked with butter, Southern Europeans and East Asians used vegetable oils. Mexicans traditionally cooked with lard. The U.S. blends all these traditions, and not surprisingly ends up with per-capita butter consumption lower than in the butter countries and higher than in the non-butter countries. (Despite a growing appetite for butter-rich pastries in China, for example, per-capita consumption there in 2015 was still only 0.1 kilogram.)

Still, back in the 1920s and 1930s, Americans consumed even more butter per capita than the French do now.

Butter's Fall and (Modest) Rise in the U.S.

Per-capita annual butter consumption

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

That precipitous collapse starting in 1943 was mainly a story of substitution. Margarine had been long discriminated against by lawmakers as a threat to the dairy industry, but during World War II it gained favor as a cheaper alternative in a time of scarcity. The National Nutrition Conference for Defense in 1941 also seems to have marked the beginning of government-endorsed claims that vegetable-oil-derived margarine was better for you than animal fats such as butter.

You probably know the rest of that story: For decades, health authorities in the U.S. inveighed against the risk of animal fats, especially in the context of heart disease. Then it turned out that margarine probably wasn't healthier at all. As I wrote in a column this spring, margarine consumption has been falling in the U.S. since the early 1990s. But it's been supplanted mainly by vegetable oils, not butter. This does seem to comport with the current state of medical opinion, which holds that vegetable oils high in polyunsaturated fats are the healthiest oils of all. But the evidence that butter and other saturated fats are actively bad for you seems to be dwindling away.

Butter certainly doesn't seem to be killing the French, whose average life expectancy at birth is 82.4 years, compared with 79.3 years in the U.S. It's not making them fat, either. Here are the countries from the above butter-consumption chart, ranked by mean body-mass index:

The Butter-Obesity Disconnect

Top butter-consuming nations, ranked by mean body-mass index

Sources: World Health Organization, International Dairy Federation, Statistics Canada

*Weight (in kilograms) divided by square of height (in meters)

None of this is exactly news. You may remember Mireille Guiliano's "French Women Don't Get Fat," a big bestseller in the U.S. in 2005. As best I can tell, the book actually emphasized leeks, portion size and physical activity -- not massive increases in butter intake. And for sure, the French aren't healthier than Americans because they eat three times as much butter as we do. But it certainly doesn't seem to be doing them significant harm, apart from the panic they must feel these days when they show up at the supermarket and there's no butter.

There are other issues with choosing butter over vegetable oils. Dairy cows emit lots of methane, a greenhouse gas, and growing the food they eat requires lots of water (in California, feed crops for dairy and beef cattle consume more water than all the people in the state do). In general, animal-based agriculture takes up far more resources than growing plants -- although insect farming may change that. But those are matters for another day. For now, let us just pray that the French get their butter back.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. Which are then cut up and stored in the freezer.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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