While vegetable oil-based spreads were originally introduced as a healthier alternative to butter as they are lower in total fat and calories and significantly lower in saturated fat, the widespread use of partially hydrogenated oils (which help to make liquid vegetable oils solid at room temperature - but create harmful trans fats) gave them a bad name.
While PHOs have now been phased out by all the major brands, however, spreads still have an image problem, with many shoppers seeing them as 'highly processed' and less 'natural' than butter, which has undergone a dramatic renaissance in recent years (per capita consumption has risen from 4.1 lbs/year in 1997 to 5.6 lbs/year in 2012).
Meanwhile, headlines such as ‘Eat Butter’ on the front of Time magazine in June - driven by recent research questioning whether saturated fats deserve their bad reputation - have also given butter a PR boost.
The hard fats are crystalized in a novel way that creates a stable emulsion without artificial preservatives
However, Unilever is on a mission to restore the reputation of vegetable oil spreads by taking out the ingredients shoppers don’t recognize and re-positioning them as healthier plant-based alternatives to butter, made from “plant-based oils that you would find in avocados or walnuts”.
The process began last fall with the introduction of artificial-preservative-free I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Deliciously Simple and Country Crock Simply Delicious, and has stepped up a gear this month with the reformulation of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! original.
Marketed as a “delicious blend of plant-based oils, purified water and a pinch of salt”, ICBINB original contains 45% vegetable oil (non-GMO soybean and palm oils instead of soybean and canola); and 25% fewer calories than the previous version, which contained 58% vegetable oil. It has 70% less saturated fat and 40% fewer calories than butter.
Meanwhile, three ingredients that most consumers don't have in their kitchen cupboards - mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids (emulsifiers), EDTA and potassium sorbate (preservatives) - have been removed, making for a simpler ingredients list: Purified water, soybean oil, palm kernel oil, palm oil, salt, soy lecithin, natural flavors, vinegar, vitamin A palmitate, and beta carotene.
The changes have been made possible via proprietary cool blending technology - first developed by Unilever in Europe and now deployed in Kansas as part of a $150m investment - in which the harder fats from palm oil are crystallized in a novel way that creates a stable emulsion (fat and water blend) without the use of artificial preservatives.
Consumers are seeking out foods made with real, simple ingredients
VP Foods, Unilever North America Mike Faherty told FoodNavigator-USA that the simpler recipe would help change consumer perceptions.
“We know that the perception of artificiality is our biggest barrier and consumers are seeking out foods made with real, simple ingredients that you can recognize. The new I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! is the first brand to be made with the new cool blending technology. We will continue the transformation across brands, including Country Crock, in 2015.”
The emphasis is on ‘real’ and ‘simple’ ingredients, rather than an 'all-natural' product, stressed Faherty when asked if consumers would consider enzymatically interesterified palm oil and cool blending technology as 'natural': “Unilever Spreads does not label our buttery spreads as ‘natural’…
"What you will see on our packaging and in marketing communications is language like ‘new simple recipe’, ‘no artificial preservatives’ and ‘100% taste. 0% artificial preservatives’."
But will the cleaner labels be enough to transform the fortunes of the buttery spreads category [in Q3, Unilever said “margarines continued to hold back” its food business although it had gained market share]?
Faherty would not provide figures, but said that “following recent innovations like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Deliciously Simple and Country Crock Simply Delicious along with new marketing campaigns, we have seen positive momentum from our brands and the category in the U.S. market.”
The I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! consumer finds certain offerings, such as non-GMO sourced ingredients, compelling
But what about the ‘non-GMO sourced’ claim, which is accompanied by a disclaimer* warning that a ‘small amount’ of GM oils could nevertheless be in the product owing to the lack of segregation in the supply chain?
Why has Unilever has gone down this route given that its corporate position is that GM crops are safe and “could play an important role in helping meet the long-term food needs of the world in a more sustainable way”?
It’s about giving consumers what they want, said Faherty: “We know that the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! consumer finds certain offerings, such as non-GMO sourced ingredients, compelling.”
But won’t the disclaimer confuse shoppers?
No, said Faherty: “Since sourcing non-GMO ingredients is a new capability for Unilever Spreads, we included the disclaimer to be cautious of any potential points in the process – such as our new technology and equipment – that are not yet fully segregated. We source non-GMO ingredients for the new I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! spreads and we plan to remove this [qualifying] statement at the appropriate time.”
I don’t see the dietary guidelines about saturated fat changing
So is the new product any healthier than the old one? It has 25% fewer calories than the original as it has less fat and more water, but it has the same amount of saturated fat and less ALA (the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid) than the previous version (295mg per serving vs 460mg, moving from an ‘excellent’ source of omega-3 to a ‘good’ source).
Doug Balentine, director nutrition science at Unilever North America, told FoodNavigator-USA that the reformulation was more about using simpler ingredients than transforming ICBINB’s fatty acid profile, as it was already low in saturated fat and calories.
He added: “Consumers used to see veg oil spreads as the healthier alternative to butter but they lost their health halo because of a few ingredients and the idea that they are heavily processed. We are trying to get them to reappraise the category by using simple, recognizable ingredients.”
But what about saturated fat? Do consumers care if a spread is low in saturated fat anymore?
Said Balentine: “We did a national survey and found that consumers are confused and not sure who to trust. But I don’t see the dietary guidelines about saturated fat changing. The American Heart Association still says that saturated fats should account for less than 10% of energy intakes.”
*The disclaimer says: “We source ingredients that are not genetically modified. However, in the field-to-tub journey of making our spread there is some contact with genetically modified vegetable oils, resulting in a small amount in this product.”