Eelnosiva/Shutterstock
Source: Eelnosiva/Shutterstock

There have been few foods as maligned and misunderstood as butter.

Butter has long been an important dietary staple of many societies around the globe. From the 5,000-year-old bog butter of Ireland to the subcontinent of India where ghee (a type of clarified butter) remains not only a cooking staple, but also a medicine; butter has been important nutritionally, culturally, religiously, and perhaps most pertinent in the present, tastefully.

Yet if butter were a person, today there would be a GoFundMe page to stop the bullying and banter. You see, butter is the ultimate victim of fat shaming. Back in the day when everything was simpler and more confused, it was conventional wisdom that dietary cholesterol and fat—particularly saturated fat—would increase not only your waistline, but your cholesterol level. That meant an early death from cardiovascular disease.

Such an obvious and straightforward connection opened the door for replacements as butter went the way of lard and tallow; left on the floor of a culinary abattoir. So we invented things to look, cook, and taste like butter while, of course, not actually being butter. So while we couldn’t “Believe It’s Not Butter,” we chowed down artificially created trans-fatty acids (TFAs) that detonated in our arterial walls like time delayed IEDs.

And while now, over fifty years since the government delivered us unto the aisles of low-fat, fat-free, less fat, and a host of other tasteless substitutions, we begin to turn the massive ship of guidelines and recommendations onto a proper course; generations remain lost in a sea of misinformation. As Mark Bittman opines:

the industry’s idea of “low fat” became the emblematic SnackWell’s and other highly processed “low-fat” carbs (a substitution that is probably the single most important factor in our overweight/obesity problem), as well as reduced fat and even fat-free dairy, on which it made billions of dollars. (How you could produce fat-free “sour cream” is something worth contemplating.) … And let’s not think about the literally millions of people who are repelled by fat, not because it doesn’t taste good (any chef will tell you that “fat is flavor”) but because they have been brainwashed.

Why would you buy a processed food that tastes worse than what it was designed to replace, doesn’t exist in nature, and helps kill you?

Why indeed?

Because of the “fat is bad” fallacy, butter which is the dairy product highest in fat became emblematic of America’s ills. It became the poster and practice of what was wrong with the American diet and what needed to be avoided at all costs.

Except it was the conventional wisdom that was wrong.

A recent meta-analysis sought to examine “the evidence for the relationship between butter consumption and long-term health.” Their analysis combined nine trials involving fifteen countries and over 600,000 people. Of significant interest, was the fact that there was not one randomized, controlled clinical trial (RCT). Despite the excommunication of an entire food source from the gastronomic pantheon, replete with warnings, guidelines, recommendations, and dire prophecy; not once did anyone ever look to compare the outcomes of butter consumption to what was being proffered in its place.

What is the relationship between butter with all its evil saturated fat and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD)? Nothing, nada, zero; as the researchers concluded, “butter intake was not significantly associated with CVD.” Same for risk of stroke.

What about the risk of developing type 2 diabetes (T2D) through the consumption of butter? Other recent research has suggested that those “with diabetes have a 50% increased risk of dying following an acute myocardial infarction (AMI) compared with those who’ve had a heart attack but don’t have diabetes.” If fat makes you fat, and obesity is a risk factor for developing diabetes (as we have been led to believe), then butter clearly is the “die” in diabetes.

Except, once again, when we look at the data, it’s not.

Point in fact, the investigators found that “butter consumption was associated with lower incidence of type 2 diabetes, with 4% lower risk per daily 14g serving.” They went on to note that

Current dietary recommendations on butter and dairy fat are largely based upon predicted effects of specific individual nutrients (e.g., total saturated fat, calcium), rather than actual observed health effects. Our findings add to a growing body of evidence on long-term health effects of specific foods and types of fats. Conventional guidelines on dietary fats have not accounted for their diverse food sources nor the specific individual fatty acid profiles in such foods. Different foods represent complex matrices of nutrients, processing, and food structure, which together influence net health effects.

And this does not even begin to delve into the effects of different foods on our gut microbiome; our symbiotic organ of environmental interface. Because the quality matters; sourcing is important. Milk fat, of which butter is so rich in, contains extremely potent compounds like the anti-inflammatory omega-3 (ω-3) fatty acids (FAs). It is also rich in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and a number of healthful vitamins and minerals. Additional research has correlated “dairy fat consumption to diminished weight gain, attenuated markers of metabolic syndrome, including waist circumference, and reduced risk of CVD and colorectal cancer.”

But reflective of the highly processed nature of the modern Western diet, many dairy products including butter have an elevated omega-6 (ω-6) to omega-3 (ω-3) ratio. There is increasing evidence that the dietary balance of ω-3 and ω-6 FA is at least as important, and perhaps more important than the absolute amounts of saturated, monounsaturated, and total fat that obsess the current public narrative. While the ideal ratio is unknown, experts believe it is somewhere in the 1:1 to 2:1 range. Current estimates put the US diet at 15-17:1 and over 20:1 in some studies. Even human breast milk has seen a dramatic increase in the ω-6:ω-3 ratio as a result of changes in the maternal diet.

Milk and thus butter from cows allowed to consume their natural food like grass have higher concentrations of ω-3 FAs and CLA than that from cows lacking routine access to pasture and fed substantial quantities of grains, especially corn. The balance of FAs in foods like butter depends on the animal’s diet and on its digestive physiology. That digestive physiology, just like ours, is greatly dependent on the integrity of the natural gut microbiome. This can be radically affected by the living and rearing conditions as well as the feed. Feed made with GMO containing product has been shown to negatively alter the gut microbiome of livestock.

The U.S. National Organic Program (NOP) stipulates that certified organic farms receive at least 30% of daily Dry Matter Intake (DMI) from pasture during that portion of the year when pasture grasses and legumes are actively growing, with a minimum of 120 days per year. Pasture and conserved, forage-based feeds account for most of the DMI year-round on a growing portion of organic dairy operations in the United States.

So be a chef, not just a consumer; source the real thing. It makes a difference on this planet, on your person and perhaps most tellingly, on your palate.

References:

Ailhaud, G., Massiera, F., Alessandri, J.-M., & Guesnet, P. (2007). Fatty acid composition as an early determinant of childhood obesity. Genes Nutr , 2: 39–40. doi: 10.1007/s12263-007-0017-6 .

Alabas, O., Hall, M., Dondo, T., Rutherford, M., Timmis, A., Batin, P., . . . Gale, C. (2016, June 15). Long-term excess mortality associated with diabetes following acute myocardial infarction: a population-based cohort study. J Epidemiol Community Health, pp. doi:10.1136/jech-2016-207402 .

Benbrook, C. M., Butler, G., Latif, M. A., Leifert, C., & Davis, D. R. (2013). Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Shifting Fatty Acid Composition: A United States–Wide, 18-Month Study. PLOS One, •DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0082429 .

Bittman, M. (2014, March 25). Butter is Back. The New York Times, pp. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/26/opinion/bittman-butter-is-back.html?_r=0.

Bittman, M. (2015, June 24). Trust Me. Butter Is Better. The New York Times, pp. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/opinion/the-trans-fats-that-wont-leave....

Bonthuis, M., Hughes, M., Ibiebele, T., Green, A., & van der Pols, J. (2010). Dairy consumption and patterns of mortality of Australian adults. . Eur J Clin Nutr , 64: 569–577. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2010.45 .

Fenster MD, M. S. (2014). The Fallacy of The Calorie: Why The Modern Western Diet is Killing Us and How to Stop It. New York: Koehler Books.

Larsson, S., Bergkvist, L., & Wolk, A. (2005). High-fat dairy food and conjugated linoleic acid intakes in relation to colorectal cancer incidence in the Swedish Mammography Cohort. . Am J Clin Nutr, 82: 894–900.

Pimpin, L., Wu, J. H., Haskelberg, H., Del Gobbo, L., & Mozaffarian, D. (2016). Is Butter Back? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Butter Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Total Mortality. PLos One, 11(6):e0158118. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0158118.

Rosell, M., Hakansson, N., & Wolk, A. (2006). Association between dairy food consumption and weight change over 9 y in 19,352 perimenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr , 84: 1481–1488.

Simopoulos, A. ( 2002 ). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother, 56(8):365-79.

Stancliffe, R., Thorpe, T., & Zemel, M. (2011). Dairy attenuates oxidative and inflammatory stress in metabolic syndrome. Am J Clin Nutr , 94: 422–30. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.013342 .