The humble butter is a casualty of brand war (Comment)

October 26th, 2010 - 10:57 am ICT by IANS  

Amitabh Bachchan By Animesh Banerjee
Butter has been around almost since the inception of civility. The records reveal that butter originated during the Mesopotamian civilization, between 9000 and 8000 BC. It was initially prepared from sheep/goat since domestication of cattle took place long after.

The benefits of butter for human consumption have been referred to in several ancient documents, including the Vedas and Upanishads. In Sanskrit, the word for butter is derived from ‘bhutari’, or “the enemy of evil spirits”. Most Vedic ceremonies have a use for butter or ghee (clarified butter).

Margarine on the other hand is the new kid on the block, developed at the behest of French Emperor Napoleon III, conceived as a substitute for the troops and the less privileged. Not having made much of a culinary impression, it was consigned to anonymity until it was taken up as a cause celèbre by large food manufacturers as a healthier alternative.

And so the joust began, turning into a brand war, especially in the Western world. Marketing campaigns for margarine were centred on superior health benefits driven by the higher poly-unsaturated fat vis-à-vis lower cholesterol contents. All campaigns, expectedly monochrome, pictured butter consumption as a sure way to support your neighbourhood cardiac surgeon while butter was projected as killer fat.

The dairy lobby too launched counter campaigns focusing on butter as a natural, nutrient-rich product as compared to margarine, a synthetic invention. And much of its cholesterol benefits ascribed to omega 3 fatty acids were said to be beneficial only when sourced from fish or marine products.

Butter consumption in the Western world reached its lowest ebb consequent to the brand war, whereas its multipoint uses remain unaffected in the East, where other than a cooking medium, it is being used as an important ingredient for preparation of traditional ayurveda, unani and siddha medicines. Modern researchers took a lead from the usage in establishing butter/ghee contents - conjugated linoleic acid - an anti-carcinogenic and several other immuno modulating properties. Therefore, innovative measures were initiated globally to utilise butter fat derivatives in the functional food products and pharmaceutical industries.

Though butter fat is an established essential human food-pack item, its high cholesterol contents cannot be ignored. Therefore, butter or ghee consumption is beneficial as long as the prescribed HDL/LDL cholesterol ratios are maintained by consuming requisite quantities of fruit and vegetables, as a part of balanced dieting.

We live in an age where controlling consumer thought is a prelude to commercial benefit and a barrage of advertisements that a consumer is exposed to can cross the fine line. Products are purchased because a cricketer like M.S.Dhoni or an actor like Amitabh Bachchan recommends it, not because the products genuinely perform better.

An ad campaign is not the mere launching or selling of a product, but creation of its perception too. It does not matter if one has the best products but what matters is the consumers’ thinking on it.

Therefore, an honest approach in brand building exercise is of paramount importance, especially in food products where human health is at stake!

(26-10-2010-Animesh Banerjee is advisor to the dairy & food sector of the Government of India and past president, Indian Dairy Association. He can contacted at banerjeeanimesh@rediffmail.com)

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