The Often Ignored Health Benefits of Butter

Health Benefits of Butter

For quite some time, our society has conducted a ‘war on fat’. Everyone has been taught to avoid fat in their diet for the sake of maintaining health and losing weight.

In fact, the advice to decrease fat intake became such a strong part of public consciousness that no one questioned the underlying concepts.

But, there's a growing movement of people saying that fat isn't unhealthy whatsoever. Many fats are even beneficial. That's why this post focuses on the health benefits of butter. 

The concept might sound crazy to the uninitiated but there truly are benefits. To explain these, we're going to look at the research surrounding fat, butter and health. 

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What's the Problem with Butter?

When people were told to avoid butter, they did. Butter sales decreased dramatically. 

Butter Consumption in the United States per Capita.

This trend wasn't just because people were afraid of fat, of course. Margarine became increasingly popular in the 1940's to 1960's for a range of reasons. But, a key factor was that people were told that butter was unhealthy and margarine was good for them.

You can find out more at the site Mental Floss, which has an interesting discussion on the history of margarine. 

Yet, our health didn't improve. We're even facing an obesity crisis right now and many people struggle with poor health. 

Change in Obesity in the United States over time. Image sourced from NCBI.

So, what's going on?

Fat isn't Bad for You

We've been told that fat causes heart disease, weight gain and a host of other health problems. 

But, the evidence isn't as strong as you might imagine, as the following sections show. 

Previous Research was Low-Quality

The idea that fat is unhealthy was influenced by many factors, including industry pressure and previous research. Many studies have suggested that high fat intake has poor health impacts. 

But, they had some severe limitations.

  • Many used an observational design. They could not test cause and effect
  • They often found that that people with higher levels of saturated fats also had an increased risk of heart disease. 
  • Similar relationships were found between fat and health. 
  • But, people had been told that fat was unhealthy. Because of this, most people eating high fat diets were also eating unhealthy diets. Many would have had other unhealthy behaviors too, like smoking, excessive drinking and a lack of exercise. These patterns heavily biased the outcomes.  

Modern Research has Different Conclusions

Recent research has used different designs to avoid these issues. In doing so, they've found very different outcomes. Current evidence suggests the following

  • Saturated fat does not increase the risk of heart disease (1,2,3).
  • There is insufficient evidence to support recommendations for low saturated fat intake (4).
  • Low-fat diets don’t appear to have any impact on the risk of heart disease (5,6).
  • Low-fat diets may decrease health by lowering levels of good cholesterol (LDL) and negatively impacting the size of LDL particles (7,8).
  • In contrast, saturated fat can improve LDL particle size (9).  
  • Higher fat intake may offer health benefits, including decreased heart disease and diabetes risk (10), along with lower risk of obesity (11). 
  • High-fat and low-carb diets are as good, if not better, than low-fat diets for promoting health and for weight loss (12,13,14).
  • The quality of food may matter more than the specific nutrient composition. The site Examine.com examines a powerful recent study that suggests this pattern. 
  • Butter consumption doesn't contribute to diabetes, heart disease or risk of death (15).

This change has been highlighted in many high-powered publications. For example, Time Magazine ran an article focusing on current research. The topic was even a cover story in 2014.

Eat Butter

Butter sales have been increasing as well. In 2014 (the same year as Time's publication), butter hit a 40-year high in sales

What Does This All Mean?

The focus on fat has also had negative outcomes for food. 

  • Companies often use sugar to ensure that low-fat foods are palatable. Sugar has many negative impacts for health and these have been proven
  • Food has become much more processed.
  • Artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors are becoming more common, especially in low-fat foods. The same is true for other additives and fillers. 
  • We are consuming many more carbs. These are more heavily refined as well (16). 

By focusing on low-fat foods, people miss out on many high-quality functional foods. These are often high in fat but they provide a range of beneficial nutrients.

Many are also more satisfying, due to their fat and protein content. Butter is one example, others include red meat, full-fat dairy (like ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, milk and yogurt), olive oil, avocados and coconut oil.

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.

Despite myths to the contrary, fat isn't unhealthy and may even provide benefits.

Health Benefits of Butter

Butter on a brown table

This brings us back to the discussion on butter. Butter is essentially formed through the process of churning cream, and sometimes salt, preservatives and flavorings are added.

Chemicals aren't normally used in the process. You can even make butter at home, as the site Happy Hooligans explains.

Butter has the following fat composition.

  • 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.

  • 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 difference may have health implications. 
  • For example, one significant component of the fat in butter is the short-chain and medium-chain triglycerides. Research suggests that these may play a role in increasing energy expenditure (17) and in increasing satiety (18).

Nutrient Composition

One key advantage of butter is the nutrients. Butter is one of the few fats that contain vitamins.

One particularly interesting nutrient in butter is vitamin K.

  • This plays a role in reducing the risk of prostate cancer and heart disease (19,20), preventing fractures and reducing bone loss (21).
  • What's more, butter contains a specific variant of vitamin K, known as vitamin K2. This 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 yolks, meat 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 (22).

Butter also contains 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 (23).
  • As a consequence, the butyrate in butter may help to improve colon function and reduce the risk of colon cancer (24).
  • Butyrate can also improve insulin sentitivity. One study examined this role in mice that were fed a high-fat diet. The study aimed to examine whether the consumption of butyrate was able to offset some of the negative metabolic effects of a diet high in fat. 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 (25).

Another compound 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 (26).
  • It helps reduce the risk of cancer development (27), including breast cancer (28,29).
  • It can offset some negative impacts from the consumption of dairy saturated fats (30).

The site Dr. Jockers also talks about the health benefits of butter in detail. Specifically, he focuses on grass-fed butter and why that is such a powerful choice.

The fat content and nutrient composition of butter contribute to many benefits. 

Butter vs Margarine (and other alternatives)

Margarine

It's clear that butter can be beneficial. But, what about the other options? 

There are many heavily refined products that look and taste (mostly) like butter but are much lower in fat. However, this doesn’t mean that these products are similar to butter at all.

  • These products mimic butter so well because they are designed to.
  • Margarine and other butter alternatives are made from oils that have been extracted from seeds, such as soybean, corn, rapeseed and sunflower.
  • 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. This process produces trans fats, which are highly detrimental to health (31).
  • Furthermore, some of the seeds that are used to create the oil have been genetically altered in some way and may have been treated with substantial amounts of pesticides. 
  • Furthermore, additives are also used in the final product to make the taste desirable and to ensure that the product lasts.

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 (32). The results of the study can be seen in the image below:

Butter versus Margarine

That is the opposite outcome that many people would predict.

At the end of the day, just about everything about margarine (other butter substitutes) is artificial and heavily processed. This includes the color, texture and taste.

Some brands will be better than others. But, they all involve significant processing. 

A Word About Ghee

Ghee in a bowl or cup

Ghee isn't really a butter alternative. Instead, it is a form of clarified butter. This means 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.

Ghee is especially common on a keto diet, although it can work well for anyone. 

Heavily processed butter alternatives aren't healthy. But, you can use ghee. 

Recent Changes

Homemade herbed butter on a table

In recent years, there has been a slow movement back towards butter and less refined products.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 now requires trans fat to be labeled and is focusing on removing it (as much as possible) from food (33). 
  • However, the elimination of trans fats from margarine and butter-like spreads doesn’t change the heavily processed nature of these products (34).

Controversy about Butter

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 (35). 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 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.
  • In fact, an article in Time Magazine highlighted a recent meta-analysis of studies that found no evidence linking butter to heart disease. Instead, butter may even reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

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 and sizes of cholesterol that are present.

In the end, the study doesn't prove anything about butter and doesn't even look at overall health. Plus, there are many more positive studies out there, which were highlighted earlier. 

Butter is becoming more popular in the modern diet, although controversy still remains.

Final Thoughts

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. 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.

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Health Benefits of Butter

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