Is Butter Healthy? The Answer May Surprise You.


If I asked the question, “Is butter delicious?” I’m pretty sure the answer would be a resounding YES! On the other hand, when “healthy” is attached to butter, you might pause and give a more hesitant answer. But…

Is butter healthy?

Let’s get on the same page…

Poor ol’ butter is a saturated fat, and saturated fats have been demonized since the ’70s…

According to Aseem Malhotra in his British Medical Journal review titled “Saturated fat is not the major issue”:

Scientists universally accept that trans fats—found in many fast foods, bakery products, and margarines—increase the risk of cardiovascular disease through inflammatory processes. But ‘saturated fat’ is another story. The mantra that saturated fat must be removed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease has dominated dietary advice and guidelines for almost four decades.

Yet scientific evidence shows that this advice has, paradoxically, increased our cardiovascular risks. Furthermore, the government’s obsession with levels of total cholesterol, which has led to the overmedication of millions of people with statins, has diverted our attention from the more egregious risk factor of atherogenic dyslipidaemia [one of the metabolic abnormalities that defines metabolic syndrome, the group of cardiovascular risk factors often linked to obesity].

Saturated fat has been demonized ever since Ancel Keys’s landmark ‘seven countries’ study in 1970. This concluded that a correlation existed between the incidence of coronary heart disease and total cholesterol concentrations, which then correlated with the proportion of energy provided by saturated fat. But correlation is not causation. Nevertheless, we were advised to cut fat intake to 30% of total energy and saturated fat to 10%.

Further, Nina Teicholz, investigative journalist and author of The Big Fat Surprise, writes:

It’s still possible that a very large, long-term clinical trial could ultimately demonstrate that saturated fats cause cardiovascular death, or even premature heart attacks. And it may be prudent to restrict the consumption of coconut oil or meat for reasons that have nothing to do with saturated fats. But over the last half century, the diet-heart hypothesis has been tested more than any other in the history of nutrition, and thus far, the results have been null. If the AHA [American Heart Association] were to fully reckon with this evidence, it would be backing away from its guilty verdict on these fats. Lacking the evidence to convict, the right thing to do is acquit.

Thus, it’s safe to say that our demonization of saturated fats—like butter—has been unwarranted. 

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Even though butter may be okay to eat, aren’t margarine and other substitutes healthier?

Real butter (the key word here is “real”—we’re not talking about the kinds that contain “natural” flavors or preservatives!) contains milk and salt.

The ingredients listed on the popular Land O’Lakes margarine sticks are:

  • Vegetable Oil Blend (Palm Oil, Palm Kernel Oil)
  • Soybean Oil
  • Water
  • Buttermilk
  • Contains Less Than 2% of Salt
  • Potassium Sorbate (To Preserve Freshness)
  • Soy Lecithin And Mono And Diglycerides (emulsifiers)
  • Lactic Acid
  • Natural And Artificial Flavor
  • Vitamin A Palmitate, Beta-Carotene (color)

That list essentially translates to…

The Land o’ Lakes packaging makes a lot of promising claims, like “0g Trans Fat” and “Still Great Baking Results”…but don’t be fooled! Margarine is a combo of a couple fine-for-you ingredients and many bad-for-you/chemical additives.

Think about it: Why did margarine come into existence in the first place? Because we were told real butter, aka a type of saturated fat, was bad for us! Now that we know saturated fat isn’t as bad as we were told, there’s absolutely no need to buy a chemical-laden substitute!

So, butter is better than its toxin-filled substitutes…but is it healthy?

Max Lugavere, author of Genius Foods, wrote this informative article on the topic. In it, he explains that you should not just throw caution to the wind and eat saturated fats with abandon, especially if you fall into one or more of the following categories:

  • You haven’t cut out sugar and other sources of concentrated carbohydrates.

  • You have genetically high cholesterol.

  • You’re afraid of fiber.

  • You possess the ApoE4 allele (the protein ApoE4 has been linked to late onset Alzheimer’s disease).

  • Your cholesterol gets higher on any form of a low-carb, high-fat diet.

Even if you fall into one of those categories, it doesn’t mean you should run straight for the margarine. However, it may be best for you to prioritize monounsaturated fatslike olive oil—and take it easy on the butter.

Whatever you do, don’t stock up on Omega-6 seed oils—like canola, sunflower, and palm—because those come with their own share of health issues!

If you plan to eat butter in moderation, recognize some types are better than others.

As previously mentioned, butter that’s not pure often contains unnecessary additives, like “natural flavors.” The term “natural flavors” is a tricky one because it sounds fine (and even healthy!), but in reality the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require companies to divulge the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) chemicals used in these “natural” additives:

. . . FDA encourages, but does not require, companies considering using engineered nanomaterials in food to consult with the agency regarding whether such substances might be GRAS. Because GRAS notification is voluntary and companies are not required to identify nanomaterials in their GRAS substances, FDA has no way of knowing the full extent to which engineered nanomaterials have entered the U.S. food supply as part of GRAS substances. In contrast to FDA’s approach, all food ingredients that incorporate engineered nanomaterials must be submitted to regulators in Canada and the European Union before they can be marketed.

For this reason, steer clear of natural flavors whenever possible.

Companies are often more inclined to use natural flavors in their tubs of butter or butter-like spreads. Generally, if you buy sticks of butter, you’ll be good to go. For example, Land o’ Lakes Honey Butter Spread contains the following: Cream, Sugar, Canola Oil, Water, Honey, Salt, Natural Flavor, Citric Acid, Guar Gum. In contrast, there are only two ingredients in their sticks of salted butter: Sweet Cream and Salt. Thumbs up!

However, Land o’ Lakes butter isn’t from pastured cows…which brings me to the next point: Butter that’s organic from pasture-raised/100% grass-fed cows is the golden standard!

Kerrygold is my favorite brand because 1) it’s made from the milk of cows that’ve been 100% grass-fed, 2) it’s widely available (you can even find it at Costco!), and 3) it tastes amaaaaaazing.

Also, realize that many of the mediums of butter consumption—like muffins and toast—can contribute to its “unhealthiness.”

The mediums we use to consume butter are not created equal. For example, it’s better to use a bit of butter for cooking/topping healthful, nutrient-dense foods like meat and vegetables. Slathering pastries and bread with butter is different (and not doing your body any favors).

Which brings us to the conclusion…

Bottom line: We should stop demonizing butter and start villainizing toxic butter replacements and seed oils instead; at the same time, we shouldn’t consider butter a “health” food. The next time you cook eggs or veggies, feel free to throw some grass-fed butter into the pan…just don’t go too crazy! Your taste buds will thank you, and your heart probably won’t hold it against you.

Questions? Comments? Let me know below!

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