Buttermilk has an interesting history. It was traditionally created as a byproduct during the butter making process and sometimes still is. Most of the time, though, buttermilk is now made from milk with lactic acid bacteria added. The creation approach makes a huge difference, influencing the nutritional profile, texture, and flavor of buttermilk.
In this post, we’re focusing on the non-traditional version of buttermilk (sometimes called cultured buttermilk). This is the type you see in your local grocery store and may use regularly in your baking. However, we will spend some time talking about traditional buttermilk too, as this has some interesting features.
Cultured buttermilk has some similarities to regular milk, along with differences. No surprises there. It is made from milk, after all, so it shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of regular cow’s milk and other dairy products, like cheese.
There’s also the taste to think about. Buttermilk tends to be tangier than regular milk. It has a thicker consistency too. This combination of features works perfectly in many recipes, giving you different outcomes than regular milk.
So then, let’s talk about the health implications. Is buttermilk good for you?
Is Buttermilk Good For Your Health?
- Benefits Of Buttermilk
- How Buttermilk Could Be Harmful
- Can You Drink Buttermilk?
- Should You Drink Buttermilk At Night?
- Buttermilk Versus Regular Milk
- Substitutes To Buttermilk
- Final Thoughts
Benefits Of Buttermilk
Easier To Digest Than Regular Milk
Despite how common dairy products are, many people are lactose intolerant. This means that the enzyme that digests lactose doesn’t function properly in them, so dairy products can cause side effects like cramping and diarrhea.
Some people with lactose intolerance can still enjoy cultured dairy products, like buttermilk, kefir, and yogurt, because the bacteria in these products break down some of the lactose.
However, this effect isn’t true for everyone, so you’ll need to experiment. You might do this by starting with a little buttermilk in your recipes and seeing whether you experience any side effects. Increasing the amount slowly over time will help you get a sense of how your body reacts, without risking severe side effects.
Could Help With Your Bones
Milk is famous for its ability to help with bone health. Those effects come from the nutrients present, including calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D. The protein is relevant too, as dietary protein can influence your bone health.
Now, as is often said, you can get all those nutrients from plenty of other places. Buttermilk is hardly unique. Still, you’re getting a decent amount of these nutrients all in one place, so why not turn to buttermilk?
Can Protect Your Gums
Here’s an interesting effect – fermented dairy products may help to protect your gums from inflammation, an effect is called periodontitis and helps with your tooth health as well.
This outcome is linked to how dairy products can actually help to decrease inflammation (despite claims to the contrary). Interestingly, while dairy drinks like buttermilk do decrease the risk of periodontitis, non-dairy fermented drinks don’t appear to have the same effect.
May Promote Heart Health
You might expect buttermilk to be bad for your heart, as it does contain saturated fat. However, studies show that buttermilk may help with your heart health instead.
In particular, some of the compounds present can help to decrease your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Buttermilk may also decrease blood pressure, helping you to avoid another heart disease risk factor.
Plus, the saturated fat in dairy doesn’t behave the way that you might expect, as it doesn’t increase heart disease risk. This is even true for full fat dairy products. If you are worried though, you can always focus on low fat buttermilk, as this contains less saturated fat.
A Source Of Probiotics
Buttermilk can also be a fantastic source of healthy microbes, which we call probiotics. These probiotics are very relevant for our health, as they can help to improve the balance of bacteria in our guts. This effect may then help with our immune system and digestion. Having a good balance of gut bacteria could even decrease the risk of some diseases.
Probiotics is still a relatively new field, so there’s much that we don’t know. Still… plenty of evidence says that our gut health affects us more than we ever thought was possible, meaning that probiotic foods may be powerful.
Helps To You To Stay Cool
As a milk-based drink, buttermilk is an easy way to cool you off on a warm day. You could even use it to take the edge off after eating spicy foods.
Of course, this benefit is only true if you’re drinking buttermilk rather than using it as an ingredient. Drinking buttermilk might sound a little strange at first, as it has a strong sour flavor. But, as we’ll discuss later on, drinking buttermilk is certainly an option and many people even enjoy doing so.
It Reduces Dehydration
While we usually associate water with hydration, other types of drink help to decrease dehydration as well – including buttermilk. This isn’t surprising, as water makes up more than 90% of buttermilk.
Buttermilk might even be better than water in some situations, as it contains electrolytes. It’s creamy too, making it seem like a treat (if you enjoy the flavor).
How Buttermilk Could Be Harmful
It’s More Acidic Than Regular Milk
Buttermilk has a lower pH than regular cow’s milk (roughly 4.8 for buttermilk, versus 6.9 for cow’s milk), making it more acidic. Some theories suggest that acidic foods are harmful and that it’s much better to eat food that is neutral (pH of 7) or alkaline (pH of above 7).
This theory is largely why alkaline water has become so popular. It’s also a highly controversial idea, as our bodies are excellent at balancing pH on their own. In fact, research has failed to prove any of the concerns surrounding acidic foods – and this area has been studied.
If you are still concerned about acidic foods, however, then buttermilk mightn’t be a good choice.
The acidity may also increase acid reflux symptoms, similar to what happens with citrus fruits. Full fat buttermilk may be particularly bad for acid reflux, as fatty foods can increase symptoms as well.
Can Cause Digestive Issues
While buttermilk is easier to digest than regular milk, it does still contain lactose. This means that some people with lactose intolerance will be able to enjoy buttermilk without a problem, while others will experience significant side effects. You’ll need to experiment for yourself to find out which is true for you.
You May Be Allergic
Lactose isn’t the only problem in milk. You can also be allergic to milk protein. If this is the case for you, then buttermilk is just as problematic as regular milk.
It’s Often High In Sodium
The sodium content of buttermilk varies, but some products contain anywhere from 260 mg to 500 mg of sodium per cup. This is far too much for many people.
After all, plenty of us are already consuming more sodium than we need to be. Getting a decent amount in apparently healthy drinks like buttermilk really isn’t appealing.
Thankfully, you can look for low sodium versions. Paying close attention to the nutrition label will help you to work out which buttermilk products offer the most benefits and come with the fewest risks.
Contains Saturated Fat
Like regular milk, buttermilk does contain some saturated fat. The amount varies depending on the type that you choose, with low fat buttermilk containing much less saturated fat than full fat versions (no surprises there).
If you are trying to avoid saturated fat as much as possible, then buttermilk mightn’t be the healthiest choice. Thankfully though, as we discussed earlier, the saturated fat in dairy doesn’t appear to increase your heart disease risk.
Can You Drink Buttermilk?
Buttermilk is mostly used as an ingredient, like when you’re making buttermilk biscuits. However, this isn’t your option. You can drink buttermilk too, either on its own or with a few spices sprinkled into it.
People who do so mention that it tends to be filling and energizing, providing much more satisfaction than a regular glass of milk. The texture may be one reason for this, as you can’t drink buttermilk as quickly as regular milk – and slowing down with your food and drink is almost always a good thing.
However, the distinct sour flavor of buttermilk can make it difficult to enjoy straight, especially when you’re trying it for the first time. Adding some seasonings can help to offset this flavor somewhat. Even then, it might be a while before you genuinely enjoy the buttermilk.
Should You Drink Buttermilk At Night?
Some theories suggest that drinking buttermilk at night is harmful, that it will increase mucous production or lead to acid reflux. Yet, for most people, this isn’t true at all. Instead, the buttermilk may help to improve your digestion and even help you sleep (much like a glass of regular milk).
Some people find buttermilk particularly good after they’ve eaten a heavy dinner.
However, this is only true if you can digest buttermilk without a problem. If you’re lactose intolerant or experience acid reflux after drinking buttermilk, having it right before bed is not a wise plan.
Buttermilk Versus Regular Milk
Buttermilk tends to be similar to regular milk, especially when it’s made by adding lactic acid bacteria to milk, rather than as the result of the butter making process. As such, buttermilk has many of the same pros and cons as regular milk.
Despite some claims to the contrary, buttermilk tends to have similar amounts of fat and calories as regular milk. In fact, the fat and calories are directly related to the type of milk used to make the buttermilk. If you start off with low fat milk, you’ll get low fat buttermilk. Full fat milk will give you full fat buttermilk.
Not too surprising, right?
The two products are similar in other ways, including their protein content and balance of nutrients. The main difference is simply that buttermilk is fermented, while regular milk is not.
As such, buttermilk will provide probiotic benefits that you don’t see with regular milk.
If you want these benefits but don’t enjoy the flavor of buttermilk, why not try kefir instead? Kefir is a fantastic entry level probiotic drink, as it has a relatively mild flavor. It mostly just tastes like a slightly fizzy version of drinkable yogurt.
Substitutes To Buttermilk
For those that need buttermilk, but don’t have any on hand, there are plenty of alternatives that have similar features. Some of these are dairy based, while others are vegan friendly instead.
Here are a few to get you started:
- Add a little vinegar to milk. Any type of milk or vinegar will work here, although white vinegar has the most neutral flavor and gives you a product that’s closest to real buttermilk.
- Other acidic ingredients produce a similar effect as well, including lemon juice and cream of tartar.
- You can even take the milk + acid approach with lactose free milk. The finished product will be a little sweeter than if you’d used regular milk, but this difference isn’t dramatic.
- Kefir already has a similar flavor and texture to buttermilk, so you can use it as a direct replacement – no tweaks needed.
- Combining soy milk with some type of acid, like vinegar, works surprisingly well too. You can do something similar with other types of plant-based milk too, like coconut milk or almond milk. Results will vary, so you might need to experiment until you find a flavor and texture combination that you enjoy.
Remember though that while these substitutions often have a similar flavor and texture as buttermilk, they won’t have the same nutritional profile.
Traditional Buttermilk Versus Cultured Buttermilk
Throughout this post, we’ve mostly been talking about the type of buttermilk that you find in stores, which has been cultured using bacteria. In contrast, traditional buttermilk is the leftover liquid from when you culture cream and curdle it to make butter.
Both products offer probiotics too, as one is made using cultured milk, while the other starts off with cultured cream.
However, there are notable differences too, starting with the fact that cultured buttermilk tends to be thicker, acidic, and has a distinct tanginess. Traditional buttermilk, on the other hand, doesn’t tend to be sour (unless it is made using milk that has started to go off).
This difference in flavor and texture means that if you’re following a modern recipe, you’ll need to use cultured buttermilk. The traditional version is a completely different thing and won’t work the same way in your recipe.
There are likely to be nutritional differences too, as most of the fat from traditional buttermilk will have been turned into butter, giving you a lower fat drink.
There’s one other area to consider – the fact that the cultured buttermilk will often be highly processed. Some grocery store versions will even be pasteurized, which kills the healthy microbes. To get around this issue, look for minimally processed products, preferably ones that state that they ‘contain active cultures’ or something similar.
If you want to try the traditional version of buttermilk, you could make butter yourself at home or look for a small scale dairy company that sells buttermilk (as some still do). However, traditional buttermilk isn’t common these days, so it might take a while to find a company that offers it.
Buttermilk is somewhat complicated, as there are two versions of the drink, which are quite different from one another. Still, both versions can offer probiotic benefits and contain many of the same nutrients that you find in milk.
They’re also excellent ways to reduce dehydration and may even help to improve your health.
In both cases, the problems are similar to those with regular milk, including the fact that there’s debate about whether we should drink milk from animals anyway, the saturated fat content, and how many people cannot digest the lactose in milk.
You’ll need to decide for yourself whether the benefits of milk and buttermilk outweigh those issues. For many people, the answer is yes, without a doubt. Still… you can get nutrients like calcium in plenty of other places. There are plenty of non-dairy probiotic foods and drinks as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does Buttermilk Go Bad?
While buttermilk is a fermented beverage, it will go bad. Signs of this include an extremely sour smell or if the buttermilk is much thicker than it was before. Large lumps are another sign that it’s time to get rid of the buttermilk.
What Does Buttermilk Taste Like?
Buttermilk has a similar flavor to yogurt, complete with a distinctive tanginess. This tanginess works well in many recipes and isn’t overwhelming at all. That said, the traditional version of buttermilk has a more intense sourness than the cultured one that we rely on today.
Is Buttermilk Supposed To Be Chunky?
Buttermilk is slightly lumpy or clunky, but not dramatically so and should still pour easily. If it has large lumps or is difficult to pour, then it’s time to throw away the buttermilk, as it has gone bad.
Is Buttermilk Lactose Free?
Buttermilk is made from milk, so it will always contain lactose. It is theoretically possible to make lactose free buttermilk, using the same approaches that companies use to make lactose free milk. However, right now there aren’t any commercially available options. Hopefully this changes in the future.
Does Buttermilk Smell Sour?
Buttermilk does have a slight tangy or sour smell to it, but this isn't all that intense. Instead, buttermilk mostly smells like other dairy products. If you notice a strong sour smell, then the buttermilk has probably gone bad and should be thrown out.
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