Losing Our Senses and Eating Fake Food: Why Butter Is Yellow and Bread Is White

localvoreJudging by the number of Facebook shares and tweets, it seems the post Forgotten Food prompted by Ann Vileisis’ book “Kitchen Literacy” got people thinking. I was very glad to see that, because it’s by understanding how we got to this place of disconnect that we’ll be able to fix our broken food system: Understand the disconnect, then work to correct it.

As I continue to make my way through the book, I offer up two more tidbits of information that illustrate our lack of knowledge about the natural state of food and how that ignorance continues to shape our buying decisions…and modern food system.

The first? Why butter is yellow. The second? Why bread is white. Yes, there’s a color theme here. You’ll see why if you keep reading.

It’s funny about the butter because my daughter has asked me more than once why butter is colored. (She knows it’s colored because she reads ingredient labels, and butter packaging often says color added seasonally.)

OK, so really it’s not funny. It’s sad. Here’s why: Margarine was invented when meat processors had all this leftover fat to deal with. They came up with oleomargarine, colored the white stuff yellow, and marketed it as an alternative to butter.

Now, back when this happened in the 1880s, enough people still knew enough about real butter to avoid being duped. They knew butter was yellow and richer when cows were munching on the fresh, green grass of spring, then pale and hard when cows had only hay for food during the winter. They could see and taste the variations of butter, and in fact expected to see such seasonal changes. Hence, they associated the pretty yellow color of spring and summer butter with better-tasting butter…because the yellower butter was better tasting.

When oleomargarine came on the market, this white fat was died yellow to make it look like butter. At the time, creameries didn’t color their butter. They didn’t need to. Shoppers understood the reasons for lighter and darker butter. Oleomargarine was always the same color, however, even in the winter when real butter lightened in tone. So creameries started adding color to the butter to make it as yellow as the fake oleomargarine, so they could compete with the fake stuff.

Why? Because people were losing their connection to real food and color was becoming more meaningful than source or taste. If you’ve never had real, freshly churned butter from real, fresh cream, you don’t know the difference when you taste margarine.

To this day, color is added to butter to keep it consistently yellow all year round. And to this day, we’re more likely to choose something yellow over whitish, assuming the yellower is the tastier…whether it’s real butter made from cream or fake spread made from fat.

Now for your bread. This one is a little more complex so I hope I can explain it in a way that does Ann’s work justice. White, refined flour was more expensive and therefore associated with riches and prestige. For 200 years, that didn’t matter in the U.S. however, because people ate what grew in their regions, whether rye or corn or wheat.

As our nation expanded and wheat was shipped in to cities from other places, you could eat wheat even if your region couldn’t grow it. However, the wheat didn’t keep well for shipping. So people started bolting the wheat to remove the germ, the part that spoiled. They were left with the lighter colored wheat that people associated with being well off, although in this case, even the poor could afford it. At the time, people didn’t recognize the lack of nutrients in white bread. Perhaps one could even argue for lesser flavor, if one was going for flavor, not associations.

Just as with the butter, the color was what people bought.

Over a century later, we are even more disconnected. We don’t know what real butter tastes like, and plenty of us are ignorant of the earthy, rustic taste of whole grain bread. Without this knowledge, what else are we to base our choices on but superficialities like color?

These are matters for more than the localvore. You don’t have to be focused on buying locally grown produce or grass fed beef to care about eating, do you? Especially if you’re a mom who wants to know her children and grandchildren will have a sustainable food supply 10, 20 or 50 years from now.

What would it take to stop taking food for granted? Can we slow down our hectic lifestyles and learn the tastes of real food, learn to appreciate food in all its varieties whether its seasonal changes in color or apples of different shapes?

Do we have any choice?

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