Butter has an interesting history. It was once very popular, partly because it was something made on farms. Big industry wasn’t required at all. But, when we started to get worried about fat, many people started asking is butter good for you? The answer then was often ‘no’ and people switched to low fat alternatives, including margarine.
Since then, butter has seen a resurgence. It’s becoming popular again. Time even published articles in 2014 that focused on the idea that butter is healthy and it’s time to end the war on fat.
You’ve probably heard mixed opinions about butter. Some people might call it healthy, while others don’t.
This isn’t too surprising, as the benefits of butter aren’t as clear-cut as for many other foods, like spinach, quinoa, or even eggs. To talk about this, we’re going to take a close look at how saturated fat impacts our health, along with other ways that butter affects our health.
Is Butter Good For Your Health?
- The Saturated Fat Debate
- The Benefits of Butter
- Why Some People Say You Should Use Butter Sparingly
- What About Ghee?
- What About Margarine?
- Should You Use Butter?
- How to Get the Most Out of Butter
- Final Thoughts
The Saturated Fat Debate
To talk about butter, we need to begin with saturated fat. After all, butter is made up of roughly 70% saturated fat and this is the main reason that it is seen as unhealthy.
The problem with saturated fat is a familiar tale. The heart-diet hypothesis, as it is known, suggests that saturated fat increases the amount of LDL cholesterol in our blood, which can then lead to heart disease.
This link was based on old research along with some assumptions and hasn’t been as well-proven as you might expect. Results of modern research have been much more mixed. While some studies have suggested that saturated fat might contribute to heart disease risk, others have failed to find the connection at all.
Such patterns aren’t too surprising. It’s difficult to prove cause and effect when it comes to diet. Studies often look at data from large groups of people, focusing on things like their eating patterns, their healthy behaviors, and any diseases that they develop.
Even if this type of research shows a link between heart disease and saturated fat, that association might be influenced by other things.
For example, Americans have been told to limit saturated fat for years. Many of the people that flout this recommendation do the same with other health recommendations too, meaning that their diet and lifestyle are much less healthy than people who are limiting saturated fat.
Collectively, these patterns mean that we don’t really know whether saturated fat increases heart disease. It might and it might not.
There may be other culprits anyway. Some theories suggest that sugar and processed high-carb foods may be a much bigger problem than saturated fat. If this is the case, then butter might not be nearly as bad as many of us assume.
Benefits Of Saturated Fat
To make things even more contentious, some theories suggest that saturated fats may offer health benefits. For example, saturated fat and cholesterol might help to improve the function of your cell membranes and hormones.
They’ve also been linked to improvement in cholesterol, including increasing the level of HDL cholesterol and changing the type of LDL particles to a less damaging form.
How Much Saturated Fat Should You Eat?
There’s still a lot we don’t know about saturated fat. Nutrition science is always complex and we may never have all the answers. But, even if saturated fat offers some benefits and doesn’t increase heart disease risk, it’s still something to be cautious with.
After all, it’s one thing to say that a little saturated fat every so often isn’t a big deal. It’s quite another thing to say that large amounts of saturated fat are a safe addition to your diet.
The best approach might be to have a variety of fats in your diet, including some saturated fats and plenty of monounsaturated fats. This way you have access to all the possible benefits, while also protecting your health.
This means you should be wary of approaches like Bulletproof coffee, where you’re adding butter and coconut oil (or MCT oil) into your coffee every morning. While plenty of people are passionate about the idea, the amount of added saturated fat is concerning.
The Benefits Of Butter
So, with all this debate around saturated fat, why add butter to your diet to begin with? There are plenty of less controversial ingredients out there.
As you can probably guess, there are some important reasons for doing so.
Butter For Cooking
The first reason for using butter is obvious – the flavor. Who doesn’t love how butter tastes? It’s an easy way to give meals a boost of flavor.
While butter has a relatively low smoke point, it’s still easy to use as a cooking ingredient. Ghee is even better, as it has a higher smoke point and a richer flavor.
Butter happens to be relatively unrefined too. This isn’t something to take lightly. Many other cooking oils are highly refined. They’ve often gone through chemical processing to give them the right flavor and consistency.
We’re beginning to realize that highly processed foods aren’t good for us at all. They may be a key reason for many of the health problems that we face today, along with the obesity crisis.
The Nutrients In Butter
While butter is mostly fat, it does provide you with some nutrients too. Vitamin A is the standout here, as you get around 10% of your daily intake from a tablespoon of butter. You also get some vitamin E, vitamin B12, and vitamin K, along with lower levels of calcium, niacin, and phosphorus.
These nutrients are all important for your health. You get them through a variety of foods and sometimes every little bit counts.
There are some other interesting compounds too, including beta-carotene. Our bodies convert this carotenoid into vitamin A and it may help to decrease the risk of some types of cancer.
Butter also contains butyrate. This is a short chain fatty acid that may help improve gut health and decrease inflammation.
Another interesting compound is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This is a type of fat that is normally found in dairy and meat products. Butter is a useful source of CLA, as it’s something that many vegetarians can still eat.
Because butter is pure fat, it doesn’t contain any carbs at all. This is perfect for anyone who is trying to cut down their carb intake.
After all, modern diets are filled with highly processed foods that are high in carbs. It’s nice to find an ingredient that is much simpler and more old-fashioned.
Low carb diets might not be just a fad either. They focus on replacing carbs with fat as the main source of energy. The practice has its benefits, as you end up eating more nutrient-dense foods that have a more stable effect on your blood sugar levels.
Impacts On Inflammation
Butter is also thought to decrease inflammation. This effect may help with a variety of health conditions and could even decrease heart disease risk.
Some of the anti-inflammatory effects come from the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids in butter. Omega-3 fatty acids are well-known. These are the fats in fish that contribute to a variety of health benefits.
Modern diets often contain too little omega-3 and high amounts of omega-6. While it’s important to have some omega-6 fatty acids in your diet, getting the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s is crucial for lowering inflammation and promoting health.
Butter has a decent ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, especially if you focus on grass-fed butter. In contrast, cooking oils like soybean oil, cottonseed oil, and corn oil are all high in omega-6 fatty acids.
Why Some People Say You Should Use Butter Sparingly
Butter is pure fat, so it’s packed with calories. This can be a big problem when you’re trying to lose weight.
While the same is true for any type of fat or cooking oil, it’s easy to overdo it with butter. After all, we don’t just use butter in cooking. We also spread it on our toast, add it to mashed potatoes, and use it to make many other meals taste a little richer.
It doesn’t take much extra butter to lead to weight gain.
Besides, while butter does offer vitamins and minerals, it’s not your best source of these nutrients. There are plenty of nutrient-dense foods out there, including vegetables, eggs, legumes, and more. Most of these don’t have the same saturated fat controversy that you find with butter and many are lower in calories too.
It’s An Animal Product
Butter is also an animal product. This makes it unsuitable for vegans. Some other groups are also uncomfortable with the idea of drinking milk from another species.
If your biggest concerns relate to animal treatment, then you can look for humane companies, ones that focus on treating their cows as well as possible. There are plenty of these nowadays and consumer watchdog groups help keep them in line.
Because butter is made from milk it contains lactose. The amount of lactose is very low, so some lactose sensitive people may still be able to eat butter.
What About Ghee?
Ghee is clarified butter. It’s often used in Indian cooking and features heavily in some modern diets too, including paleo and keto. Ghee is quite similar to butter, except that it is more shelf-stable and has a richer flavor.
The nutritional differences between ghee and butter are slight. Either option will have roughly the same effects on your health, so you can choose whichever you prefer.
There’s one exception though. Because the milk fat is removed when ghee is created, ghee ends up being practically lactose free. While there’s always the chance that a tiny bit of lactose will remain, your serving size is small enough that this shouldn’t matter.
What About Margarine?
Margarine has long been promoted as a healthy alternative to butter, as it is lower in calories and saturated fats. Margarine also tends to be cheaper than butter, making it appealing to families with limited income.
Modern margarine products are made using vegetable oils and water. However, because vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature, chemical modification is needed to make the resulting product solid.
Hydrogenation is often used to do to create this effect. The process increases the saturated fat content of margarine and creates trans fats as a side effect. If all of this wasn't enough, there's also the fact that margarine products often contain additives.
You end up with a highly processed product that may even increase heart disease risk, instead of decreasing it.
If you do plan to use margarine, focus on soft margarines in tubs and liquid margarines. These contain less trans fats than the stick margarines, as the stick versions are much harder.
Should You Use Butter?
Nutritional science is complicated. There’s no doubt about that.
It’s almost impossible to say for certain whether a given food is healthy or unhealthy. Instead, you need to look at your diet as a whole. Diets that are rich in plant-based foods, whole grains, legumes, and monounsaturated fats tend to be healthier than those that rely on processed foods, sugar, and saturated fat.
While butter might not be as bad as we once thought, it isn’t the most amazing type of fat either. Monounsaturated fats, like those from extra virgin olive oil and avocados, have been linked to many more advantages.
Foods that are rich in these fats often contain a variety of nutrients too. Then there are eating approaches like the Mediterranean diet. These don’t focus on butter much at all and rely on monounsaturated fats instead. When saturated fat is included, it comes from whole foods, rather than cooking fat.
All of this suggests that you can use butter, but don’t be excessive with it.
How To Get The Most Out Of Butter
The most important thing is to think about how you use butter and when. This might include relying on monounsaturated oils most of the time and using butter occasionally, like in meals where the flavor of butter simply can’t be replaced.
Pay attention to your quantities too. It’s easy to add more butter than you intend when you’re frying food or eating potatoes. You’ll often still get the same pleasure if you use less butter.
Normal Butter Versus Grass-Fed Butter
Here's another thing to think about – the type of butter you choose. While butter tends to be made the same way and doesn't rely on additives, the nutrient profile can vary. Much of this variation comes from what the cows are fed.
While there is some difference between one farm and the next, the most dramatic change comes from farms that feed their cows grass, rather than relying on feed. This single difference means that butter contains a higher proportion of unsaturated fats (and, thus, less saturated fat).
There are other differences too, including a lower fat content in the milk, more omega-3 fatty acids, and better texture.
These outcomes all show that grass-fed butter may be much healthier than regular butter and well-worth the higher price.
Butter has its place. It is a useful cooking fat that adds a delicious flavor to meals and is fantastic on a baked potato. But, even if saturated fat really doesn’t raise heart disease risk, butter can’t be called a health food. It doesn’t offer enough benefits for that.
Instead, butter is an ingredient that you might use occasionally, perhaps to add flavor to a meal or on a hot piece of toast. Besides, there are plenty of alternatives to butter that you can rely on.