Grim's Grub: How butter saved lives

An attempted smear campaign may have uncovered an important epicurean puzzle piece

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Animals in the wild can go their entire life without experiencing certain diseases once common among humans.

Though it still exists today, in the middle of the 17th century rickets was apparently even more common. While the symptoms can actually have several causes, scientists looking back tend to give at least some credit to the growth of cities.

Overcrowding, large buildings and indoor work turned out to be major culprits, but it took a major puzzle piece to know why.

In the 1740s, when seafaring was growing in popularity, so too grew a disease that could lead to weakness, tooth loss, bruising and even the opening up of old wounds.

Some found relief by indulging in acid foods whenever they had shore leave, stumbling across a cure that captains used to keep crews healthy. But they still did not know why it worked.


In the 1890s and 1900s, grain processing across the globe had changed, and with it came a family of illnesses that were previously known, but not particularly common.

The first was beriberi, a disease that presented in either the heart and circulatory system or in the nervous system and muscles. It was found that chickens that developed the disease could be quickly cured if they were fed rice that wasn't "polished" — that is, the grain wasn't completely stripped of its bran and germ.

Around the same time, poor people were often afflicted with pellagra, which presented itself with digestive symptoms, scaly skin, weakness and inflamed mucous membranes.

These people primarily lived off of grain because it was cheaper than meat. The cure was what they didn't get much of — proteins. Once foods with proteins were added back to the diet, pellagra was quickly cured.

They credited the protein itself, but that wasn't quite right. An actual explanation wouldn't come until 1913.

It was around this time that margarine was becoming popular enough to make the butter industry in Wisconsin take notice. The state had gone to great lengths to keep the butter barrens happy since 1895, when they first banned dying margarine yellow as a means to show off the naturally less than appealing color.

This wasn't great for margarine, but it did not extend outside of Wisconsin.

In stepped the University of Wisconsin. Some say the butter industry paid for the research, but some say that Elmer Vernon McCollum was actually trying to figure out the nutritional needs of his cows.


McCollum was a pioneer in performing testing with rats as a stand-in for his cows. The big difference in how he fed his subjects was the types of fats they ate. It turned out that when his rats were fed with fats exclusively from dairy products (including eggs and butter), they thrived. Those fed other fats (olive oil, lard) died.

The findings were baffling, because food science at this time recognized three nutritional factors in food: protein, fat and carbohydrates. McCollum just needed to figure out what kept the butter-fed rats alive.

Similar research was being done in other parts of the world. Polish born biochemist Casimir Funk was busy studying the process that Doctor Christiaan Eijkman used to cure beriberi in chickens. He theorized there was a nutritional substance that he named "vital-amines" based on the concept of amino acids.

English biochemist Frederick Gowland Hopkins used McCollum's rat test subject to then take the research further, possibly funded by the butter industry.

Hopkins received money to investigate the nutritional value of butter versus margarine. He found margarine to be inferior, with results similar to those McCollum found.

Research into the why finally resulted in the discovery of something vital. It was a chemical previously unidentified that existed in butter but not margarine.

Because it was the first such unknown chemical that didn't fit under the categorization of fats, carbs and proteins, he called it "factor A," though history would eventually rename it based on Eijkman's own research vital-amines A, or Vitamin A.

More research uncovered nearly an alphabet of vital-amines hidden in everyday food, and sometimes removed by accident.


Rice germ and bran contained thiamin (vitamin B1), which could prevent beriberi. Sour fruits and apple peels are rich in citric acid (vitamin C), which prevents scurvy. A grain-based, protein-poor diet lacked niacin, vitamin B3, which kept pellagra at bay.

Finally, the sunless alleys of London in the 1700s just needed a little vitamin D to keep nutritional rickets at bay.

Once food scientists knew about these vital foundations for life, they were able to identify the causes of many diseases that had baffled them for hundreds of years. All it took was a smear campaign from "Big Butter" to bring it all to light.

Unfortunately for them, in 1926 the ploy somewhat backfired as the margarine industry responded to Hopkins' research by "fortifying" their product with vegetables and advertising it as such.

This same practice has led to fortified bread, dairy products and more, since sometimes it is easier to return processed versions of the missing vitamins than to put out a product that never had them removed in the first place.

Mom and Grandpa's Spritz Cookies

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  • 1 cup soft butter
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 1/2 cup sifted flour

Cream together the butter and all ingredients except the sifted flour. Once thoroughly combined, work in the sifted flour by hand.
Use a cookie press, piping bag or zipped bag with the corner cut off to extrude the dough onto a flat, greased cookie sheet. Bake for 7-10 minutes at 400 degrees until set, but not browned.

Dorothy Rollins' Home Economics Butter Cream Frosting

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  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter or margarine
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 tablespoon milk

Add these ingredients into a large mixing bowl and combine until you have a uniform frosting with no lumps.
If using a stand mixer, start on low speed to combine at first, then speed up to medium for about three minutes until light and fluffy.

This goes well on some cupcakes and yellow cake. Or add this to a piping bag and extrude it onto the bottom of a spritz cookie; use a second cookie to make a frosted sandwich cookie with enough butter to make Wisconsin proud.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or

Opinion by Travis G. Grimler
Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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