For quite some time, our society has conducted a ‘war on fat’, where everyone has been taught to avoid all fat in their diet for the sake of maintaining health and losing weight.
In fact, many of the recommendations have become such a strong part of public consciousness that no one even questions them anymore.
However, when you start to dig deeper into the science behind fat, weight loss and health, it becomes obvious that the typical advice that everyone gives is not as good as people think.
One of the unfortunate victims of this focus against fat has been butter and alternatives to butter have been heavily promoted as a much better choice.
In fact, most people don’t even know that there are significant health benefits of butter and choose margarine or vegetable oils instead.
As you can see, butter consumption was once significantly higher, and the per capita consumption of butter has been declining for many years.
The Problem of Butter Alternatives
There are many different types of butter alternatives, such as margarine, many of which look and even taste similar to butter.
However, this doesn’t mean that these products are similar to butter at all.
In fact, the reason that products mimic butter so well is because they are designed to. After all, butter has a lot of appeal in terms of taste, so it makes sense that products like margarine would try and mimic this.
The thing is, the production of butter alternatives is not natural, and there is a large amount of processing involved in the production of the spread.
Margarine and other butter alternatives are made from oils that have been extracted from seeds, such as soybean, corn, rapeseed and sunflower.
The process of extracting oil isn’t exactly simple, and getting the oils involves processes of chemical removal, deodorization and alteration.
Furthermore, some of the seeds that are used to get the oil to start off with have been genetically altered in some way, but this isn’t something you will ever see on the labeling.
Additionally, many of the genetically altered strains of seeds are changed to resist pesticides, which means that they also end up being treated with substantial amounts of pesticides.
The exact process for extracting oil is different for each type of seed, but one example is canola oil. This oil is created from rapeseed oil that is frequently genetically modified.
The extraction of this oil involves the use of a petroleum solvent and multiple heating stages. The oil is treated chemically to give it a palatable smell and taste, to improve the color of the oil and to separate the various parts.
If this oil is going to be made into a butter alternative, a process called hydrogenation is used.
The aim of this process is to make the oil solid at a much lower temperature than it would normally be.
In the process of hydrogenation, trans fats are produced, and these are highly detrimental to health. This type of fat has been linked to a reduction in the size of the particles of good (LDL) fat in the body (1).
Furthermore, additives are also used in the final product to make the taste desirable and to ensure that the product lasts.
At the end of the day, just about everything about margarine and other butter substitutes is artificial and heavily processed. This includes the color, texture and taste.
Recent Additions to the Diet
One important thing to remember about butter alternatives is that they are a relatively recent addition to our diet.
It was only in the 1900s that the method of extracting oil from seeds was even available, so our bodies simply aren’t used to this type of food – if you can even call it that.
We are living in the middle of an obesity crisis where people are struggling to maintain a healthy weight and a healthy lifestyle.
There are many recommendations about what to do to resolve the situation, but one of the key approaches is to move back towards how humans used to eat and away from heavily processed products – including butter alternatives.
In reality, very little is known about what the long-term effects of adding all of these chemicals into our bodies are and it is difficult to find out through research.
However, it’s unlikely that these chemicals are doing nothing at all, and there are probably many negative side effects that we simply do not know about.
After all, people eat many different types of food, making it pretty much impossible to trace the impact of any single type of food, or the cumulative effects of multiple foods.
This trend isn’t unique to butter alternatives. In fact, there has been a strong movement towards processed foods since the government announced its low-fat dietary guidelines in 1977 (2).
Clearly, this approach hasn’t been very successful, as the rate of obesity has been steadily rising ever since these guidelines were introduced.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the health guidelines actually cause the increased rate of obesity, but telling people to avoid whole, hearty and healthy food in favor of artificially processed substances is unlikely to have improved health.
Clearly, this approach is doing nothing at all to help decrease the prevalence of obesity.
The Myth of High Fat and Saturated Fat
Most people in the United States would say that the best way to lose weight is to follow a low-fat diet.
This involves dramatically decreasing consumption of high-fat products, such as red meat, full-fat dairy products and eggs.
This type of diet has been recommended for so long, that there is a really strong stigma associated with buying these products.
The stigma surrounding high-fat foods is a real pity, because the science behind the negative aspects of high fat simply isn’t there.
The main reason that low-fat diets are recommended is the link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease.
This is a topic that I talk more about in my post about cholesterol and the controversy that surrounds it.
So, why the difference?
Early research into the field wasn’t particularly good in terms of quality. Specifically, the studies were a type known as correlational studies.
So, the authors of those studies found consistently that people with higher levels of saturated fats also had an increased risk of heart disease.
This sounds reasonable at face value, but it doesn’t mean that much because it doesn’t provide any information about whether saturated fats actually caused the increased risk.
At the time of the early studies, advice about low-fat diets had been around for a while, so most of the people who had significant amounts of saturated fats also engaged in many other unhealthy behaviors.
So, the researchers were looking at people who didn’t exercise, who may have smoked or drank excessively and who tended to consume far too much food to start off with. The researchers used this population to conclude that saturated fat was the cause of increased heart disease risk.
As I mentioned before, recent research that takes these factors into account simply hasn’t found the same outcome.
One meta analysis even found that there was not enough evidence to support the current recommendations for low saturated fat consumption and high consumption of polyunsaturated fats (8).
The problem is, even though the science has been updated, the official recommendations by places like the American Heart Foundation haven’t been updated.
This means that everyone is still told that saturated fat is a very bad thing, even though this isn’t really true.
Realistically, low-fat diets are unlikely to be very effective for weight loss either, because most of these diets just end up substituting much of the fat for sugar.
The size of LDL particles is an interesting area to consider. There are two main sizes of LDL cholesterol. One size is small and dense while the other is larger. The small and dense LDL is the one that is associated with negative health outcomes while the larger LDL is not (13).
Interestingly, a high intake of saturated fat can increase the concentration of the larger LDL (14), an outcome that is likely to have positive rather than negative impacts on health.
All of this research suggests that fat in the diet, even if it is saturated fat, is not a bad thing and may actually help to improve health.
For decades, the focus on saturated fat as a villain has been substantial, yet this advice may have actually served to increase the risk of heart disease rather than decrease it.
After all, the focus on avoiding fat has led to the emphasis on processed foods, which contain significant amounts of fructose and processed carbohydrates. These compounds are so prevalent that it is very difficult to avoid them (15).
This is one of the key reasons that people are beginning to turn away from the health recommendations of the government and towards healthy, whole foods that are not heavily processed.
After all, there is considerable scientific information available online, and this can provide people with all the information they need to make decisions and conclusions for themselves.
Health Benefits of Butter
This brings us back to the discussion on butter.
As people have become more concerned about fat consumption, butter has been consumed less and less, with people turning to margarine and butter substitutes instead.
Now, these substitutes are heavily modified foods that are designed to look and taste like butter, a process that is likely to have significant negative health impacts.
Butter has been used as part of the human diet for a long time, long before anyone considered making an artificial substitute for it.
The process for making butter is considerably simpler, particularly if you buy butter that isn’t made by a large company.
In fact, the Framingham heart study found some interesting information about butter versus margarine. This study found that margarine was associated with a significant increase in the risk of heart disease while butter was not (16). The results from the study can be seen in the image below:
That is the opposite outcome that many people would predict.
Butter is essentially formed through the process of churning cream, and sometimes salt, preservatives and flavorings are added.
Unlike butter substitutes, the texture, flavor and color of butter is natural, and no chemical manipulations are needed to make sure that butter is solid at room temperature.
In terms of fat, the composition of butter is:
- Saturated Fat: 68%
- Monounsaturated Fat: 28%
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 4%
Don’t be too concerned about the level of saturated fat in butter, as I mentioned before, saturated fat isn’t nearly as bad as it seems.
This is even true in terms of obesity. Research is beginning to show that the consumption of high-fat dairy isn’t associated with an increase in obesity (17), which is contrary to what most people assume.
It’s also important to note that the fat in butter is sometimes known as butterfat or milkfat. The structure of this fat is different than you would find in margarine and many other products. This also means that they are metabolized differently, and potentially have different implications for health.
For example, one significant component of the fat in butter is the short- and medium-chain triglycerides. Research suggests that these may play a role in increasing energy expenditure (18) and in increasing satiety (19)
In fact, there are actually some health benefits of butter, because it is one of the few fats that contain vitamins.
One of the particularly interesting vitamins in butter is vitamin K, which plays a role in reducing the risk of prostate cancer and heart disease (20,21), preventing fractures and reducing bone loss (22).
Vitamin K is particularly important because it isn’t common in the diet and people often do not consume enough of it.
In particular, butter contains a specific variant of vitamin K, known as vitamin K2, which is associated with more significant health benefits, particularly in relation to the prostate and the risk of prostate cancer.
Finding vitamin K2 in food is relatively challenging, and some of the most significant sources of K2 include both hard and soft cheese, egg yolk and butter.
Indeed, one study found that the consumption of high-fat dairy reduced the risk of heart disease by 69%. The increase in vitamin K2 was probably the reason for that outcome (23).
Although butter can be a significant source of vitamin K2, there tends to be less of this in most commercial butter.
This is because the vitamin K2 in butter arises from animals eating grasses that are rich in vitamin K.
Most commercial butter is produced from animals that are kept in high-intensity farms on a controlled diet which does not contain a significant amount of vitamin K.
As such, the best type of butter for vitamin K2 is butter that is sourced from grass fed animals.
To be honest, this is a good general rule. Any product is likely to have more health benefits when sourced from grass fed animals as opposed to animals that are intensely farmed as the diet of the grass fed animal is more natural. Additionally, butter contains significant amounts of vitamins A and E, both of which are important for health (24).
Another important chemical in butter is butyrate. This compound is important because it acts as a type of food for the cells that are present in the colon, helping to prevent self-digestion (25).
As a consequence, the butyrate in butter may help to improve colon function and reduce the risk of colon cancer (26).
Another role that butyrate plays is to improve sensitivity to insulin. One study examined this role in mice that were fed a high-fat diet.
The aim of the study was to examine whether the consumption of butyrate was able to offset some of the negative metabolic effects of a diet high in fat.
As the image below shows, consumption of butyrate was able to significantly decrease the percentage of body fat of the mice over time.
Based on the outcome of the study, the authors argued that butyrate may have potential application in human health for preventing and treating metabolic syndrome (27).
Another compound that contributes to the health benefits of butter is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a form of fatty acid.
This compound has been found to reduce the prevalence of risk markers for diabetes and atherosclerosis in rats (28).
Another important role of conjugated linoleic acid is in reducing the risk of cancer development (29), including breast cancer (30,31), and in offsetting any negative impacts from the consumption of saturated fats (32).
Additionally, conjugated linoleic acid has been linked to body composition, with one study finding that the compound played a role in reducing body fat mass (33), although not all studies agree with this outcome (34).
In recent years, there has been a slow movement back towards butter.
This movement has occurred for a few different reasons, including concern about trans fats, and increased awareness about what actually goes into butter alternatives.
The FDA has recently proposed new legislation that, if passed, will result in trans fats being all but banned, forcing companies to improve the health of their products.
Some companies have already done this, but even the elimination of trans fats from margarine and butter-like spreads doesn’t change the heavily processed nature of these products (35).
Overall, Americans have been moving towards a greater appreciation of authentic and non-processed foods.
Butter is playing a key role in this movement, particularly because it is such an important ingredient in cooking and baking.
Not only is butter not as bad as most people seem to think, it also works wonders in cooking, something that its heavily processed counterparts cannot hope to achieve.
Of course, not everyone agrees with the idea that butter is good for you.
One particularly interesting aspect of this debate comes from a study that the butter industry itself funded. Typically industries tend to fund studies and find outcomes they want, but every so often it doesn’t happen like this.
The study in question found that butter contributes to increases in blood cholesterol, even if only moderate amounts of butter were consumed (36). At face value that does look like a bad outcome, but things are a little more complicated than that.
Cholesterol itself is a huge, sticky area that I’m not going to get into here.
Butter is considered unhealthy because it raises cholesterol, but, does raising cholesterol actually mean you are at greater risk for heart disease? Well, there is actually a whole lot of debate about that. For example, Authority Nutrition (now at Healthline) goes into this topic in detail, along with some of the myths around fat and cholesterol.
There are also other issues with the study.
For example, it doesn’t really account for the fact that people often use butter on high carb foods, which is a practice that could also have implications for health. Additionally, the study just looked at levels of cholesterol, ignoring the different types of cholesterol that are present.
Choosing the Best Butter
While the health benefits of butter and its benefits in cooking are highly significant, it’s certainly true that not all butter is created equal.
As a general rule, butter that is produced from large companies is likely to be less healthy than from smaller groups.
This is because large companies tend to strongly rely on artificial processing and additives to cut down the cost of their product. But, of course, that won’t be the case in every single situation.
One particular company to be aware of is Monsanto, which is a giant company that produces genetically modified soy and grain as well as sugar beets and cotton.
All of these compounds are sometimes used for feeding cows, with soy and grain being used as the basic feed ingredient, and the beets and cotton being used to fatten them up additionally (37).
Now, I don’t know what your opinion on genetically modified organisms or GMOs is, but honestly, the research to prove their safety simply isn’t there.
For example, almost all of the safety testing that has been undertaken on GMOs has been short-term, but GMOs are something that is already a significant part of the human diet and is likely to remain substantial for quite some time.
In fact, corn is a common component of feed for animals, and currently, 88% of the corn produced in the United States has been genetically modified (38).
Indeed, a number of studies that have been conducted indicate that there may be significant negative effects from the consumption of GMOs, particularly when this consumption occurs throughout a lifetime (39)
Corn-fed versus Grass-fed Cattle
Another important area to consider in relation to what butter you choose is where the butter is sourced from.
Grass feeding has been increasing in popularity as people look for healthier sources of food with fewer chemicals, and it is a very good option.
As a general rule, grass fed beef and any products from grass fed cattle, such as milk or butter, tends to be considerably healthier and contains fewer chemicals overall.
While organic products are good, it’s important to note that in general, butter from organic corn-fed cows is not as healthy as butter from non-organic cows that are grass-fed.
However, it is always important to read the information about the butter carefully, because different approaches for farming and making the butter are used.
For example, some companies use the organic label even though their processes are not actually as good as you expect.
In some cases, products under the organic label may still be corn-fed and farmed rather than grass-fed, and there are even some cases where an organic product actually contains some level of GMOs.
One good example of this, is when farmers are located somewhere where grass does not grow throughout the year. In these cases, corn will often be used to supplement the diet, corn that could be GMO.
One word sometimes used in association with butter is ghee.
Ghee is actually a form of clarified butter, which means that the lactose, milk solids and proteins are removed.
The benefit of this approach is that the butter is easier to digest and has a greater concentration of nutrients.
Some people with sensitivity to dairy are even able to eat ghee without an issue.
This can make it a good alternative to butter in many occasions. There are also many amazing recipes that use ghee, such as caramelized bananas with ghee and cinnamon from the site Reclaiming Yesterday.
We have been told for so long that butter and saturated fats are bad for us and should be cut out of our diet.
For many people, this makes it hard to believe any other perspective.
As I have talked about, the idea that saturated fat is harmful is really a myth, and one that has been reinforced for many years.
One way to look at it is that the obesity crisis in the United States really started after the recommendations for low-fat diets, not beforehand.
Personally, I believe that a diet that is focused on whole, non-processed food will always be much healthier than a heavily processed diet.
As for butter itself, in moderation it really can be part of a healthy diet – and if possible, grass-fed butter is always going to be a better option for health.
Because of its fat content, butter is often viewed as unhealthy – but that simply isn’t true.
Instead, butter is much less processed and more nutritious than the butter alternatives out there.
Plus, the saturated fat that it contains doesn’t actually affect heart disease risk like everyone assumes.