The European Union's financial troubles aside, the group does seem to have butter figured out.
At first in the upscale American grocery stores – Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and specialty stores – and now in your local mainstream markets, European-made butters and European-style ones seem to be taking up more space in the dairy aisle. Even Costco is selling Kerrygold.
The term rarely was seen a few years ago but, as with many food trends, the exotic, the upscale and the decadent seem to be winning the hearts (and palates) of American consumers.
While there are no standard-of-identity-style definitions, European butters seem to differentiate themselves two ways. One is butterfat content. While most American butters are 80 percent butterfat and 20 percent water, the European brands seem to start at about 83 percent butterfat. It might not seem like a huge difference, but this slight increase gives the butter a creamier taste. That's something the chef community prizes – and passes along to consumers.
The other differentiation: "Most butters in Europe are cultured first; ours [in America] uses sweet cream," explains Karen Grenus, senior food technologist for Edlong Dairy Flavors (www.edlong.com), Elk Grove Village, Ill. "The [European] flavor is more reminiscent of sour cream, yogurt or buttermilk."
Grocery store dairy cases are beginning to fill with the likes of Smjör (from Iceland), Anchor (New Zealand), Lurpak (Denmark) and Kerrygold (Ireland). American-made replicas include Plugra from Dairy Farmers of America and Vermont Cultured Butter from Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery.
So Edlong flavorists are sampling them all and trying to transcribe what they taste. "We sit down with the chemists and describe the flavor notes. Then they go about trying to match them," says Grenus. "The flavor samples go back and forth as we make revisions."
Some of the results are minor variations to Edlong's existing buttery flavors – Edlong already had a Danish butter flavor in its portfolio -- and some are completely new developments.
Following yet another trend, Grenus says the company also is working on buttery flavors that can assist product developers' health and wellness goals. "Sometimes whey, other proteins, vitamins can introduce off-flavors in a finished product. Buttery flavors are particularly good at masking some, especially whey. They also round out lowfat/no-fat formulations without adding fat."
That "rounding out" effect also can be put to use with exotic flavors. "Some exotic flavors – curry, for instance – are interesting to but difficult for some American palates," she says. "A new application of ours is a butter curry flavor, which carries the exotic flavor but in a friendly way." Edlong has been sampling it to processors for salty snacks, particularly chips and popcorn.
Buttery flavors also can be used to convey process notes – "toasted, cooked, melted, brown," says Grenus.
Diacetyl has been an issue in butter flavorings for a decade. The same flavor enhancement – and especially the scent – that caused someone's microwave popcorn to make the whole office hungry has been linked to lung disease in factory workers who made the popcorn, and possibly a few deaths.
"Diacetyl has a very unique flavor profile as a flavoring agent. It's difficult to replace," says Brandon Olson, director of R&D at Prinova, formerly Premium Ingredients (www.prionova.com), Carol Stream, Ill. "More and more food processors don't want it on their premises at all. So we're working at taking it out of our flavors."
Diacteyl is a naturally occurring chemical in some foods, a byproduct of yeast fermentation. It is so critical to a buttery flavor that it was added to many butter flavors until recently.
"It's an enhancer; it lifts the flavor," says Olson. "It enhances the salty characteristic too. It's not real hard to remove it, but it is painstakingly difficult to effectively replace it." Prinova has close to 100 butter flavors in its portfolio.
Edlong went through the same process. Its entire line is free of added diacetyl.
As long as we're talking removal, all dairy allergens are being scrutinized by some consumers. "More and more processors are sensitive to that issue," adds Olson. Prinova is responding two ways.
One is to find extracts from food sources other than dairy, ones that provide the same notes as butter and other dairy flavors. This is certainly the approach for natural flavors. There also are synthetic sources, which can be very effective but may not carry as clean a label.