Some believe that butter was discovered accidentally by a Persian goatherd some 9,000 years ago. After milking the goats (or sheep or yaks — dairy cows weren’t on the scene yet), the goatherd stored the milk in animal-skin pouches, which were strapped to the sides of the herd animals as they set off for fresh pastures. En route, the jostling pouches churned the milk, separating it into two components: buttermilk and fat solids, or butter.
Upon discovering this, the goatherd was dismayed — the milk was spoiled! But after the goatherd tasted it, the world of gastronomy was changed forever.
Many of us might agree with that goatherd that butter is utterly delicious. What we can’t seem to agree on is whether we should actually eat it.
That question has been hotly debated for decades, thanks to a half-century of conflicting data connecting saturated fat and heart disease. The luxurious taste of butter is largely due to its high fat content — mainly saturated fat. And the research on this type of fat has been conflicted, to put it mildly.
For 50 years, we were told that saturated fat was the culprit in many dietary ills and that we should instead embrace an austere low-fat or fat-free protocol for health.
Now we hear that saturated fat may prevent unwanted weight gain and unbalanced blood sugar, so we’re encouraged to eat plenty of healthy fats — and maybe even add butter to our morning coffee. It’s a head-spin.
“In the 1980s we went into a low-saturated-fat craze, when experts villainized eggs and tropical oils,” says Liz Lipski, PhD, professor of nutrition at Maryland University of Integrative Health and author of Digestive Wellness. “Now we have swung the other direction, where we think saturated fats are God’s greatest gift.”
So what’s the real story? Can we enjoy our butter in peace or not? We asked nutrition and health experts the following questions in hopes of getting some clarification.
How did butter get blamed for heart disease?
In 1958, University of Minnesota researcher Ancel Keys, PhD, hypothesized that eating dietary fat — specifically, saturated fat — increased arterial cholesterol. He also posited that more cholesterol in the arteries raised heart-disease risk.
Keys’s theory was called the diet–heart hypothesis. To verify his hunch, he undertook a large-scale, longitudinal nutrition study, tracking the health of nearly 13,000 men in seven countries over the course of decades. When the Seven Countries Study data was published in the late 1970s, it seemed to suggest that the risk of heart attack and stroke correlated directly to total blood-cholesterol levels — and that blood cholesterol was directly related to eating saturated fat.
Keys himself said that more research needed to be done before dietary changes were recommended, but the “saturated fat is dangerous” message was soon widely circulated. A fervent believer in the dangers of saturated fat, Keys didn’t stop the media from promoting it — and so began the anti-butter/pro-margarine frenzy of the 1980s and ’90s.
Then other research emerged in the early 2000s suggesting that the type of dietary fat may affect cholesterol levels, but a person’s total serum cholesterol doesn’t increase the risk of heart disease.
And in 2011, a box of neglected research tapes was unearthed in the basement of one of Keys’s colleagues, Ivan Frantz Jr., MD. They contained unpublished data from another study the two conducted around the same time as the Seven Countries Study. The results directly contradicted Keys’s published findings.
The rediscovered data — from a large-scale, randomized controlled study — showed that replacing saturated fat with vegetable oil did lower cholesterol, but having lower blood-cholesterol levels didn’t reduce the risk of fatal heart disease. In fact, the research established that the lower the blood-cholesterol levels, the greater the risk of dying from heart disease.
Finally, in 2016, researchers reported evidence that during the 1960s, the sugar industry had paid Harvard researchers to hide its products’ role in heart disease. Instead, the spotlight was aimed on the supposed evils of saturated fat. (For more on this, see “Sugar-Coated Lies”.)
These developments seemed to exonerate butter of some of the worst accusations leveled against it.
What does recent research say?
Contemporary research hasn’t completely absolved saturated fat, but it has revealed a more nuanced profile. Today there’s broad consensus that a person’s total cholesterol level isn’t a reliable predictor of increased heart-disease risk.
When researchers cite data connecting saturated fat to poor heart health, it’s frequently drawn from the same small trials conducted half a century ago. As recently as 2017, an American Heart Association Presidential Advisory encouraged people to replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oil to lower the risk of heart disease.
But a large-scale, multicountry study published the same year found that total dietary fat, including saturated fats, was associated with reduced cardiovascular-disease risk.
Given the ongoing debate, most functional-medicine experts recommend butter in moderation. “The studies aren’t like, ‘Hooray! Let’s eat a lot of butter,’” says Lipski, noting that some contemporary research links eating saturated fat to the activation of cytokines, which can lead to gut inflammation and systemic inflammation.
Most studies haven’t controlled for other factors, though, such as how the butter was sourced, whether it was organic, or if the cows were grassfed. These factors also make a difference.
For instance, research shows that butter from grassfed cows has a better ratio of unsaturated fat to saturated fat. It’s also higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and beta-carotene.
Some studies suggest CLA can improve body composition and reduce cardiovascular-disease risk, as well as help protect against certain cancer types. Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant.
Organic butter has more omega-3 fatty acids than butter from conventionally raised cows, and it also offers a lower amount of the toxins that can accumulate in animal fats.
“The biggest consideration is that you are purchasing high-quality, grassfed butter to avoid the years of cross-breeding, GMOs, and other additives [in conventional dairy],” says Will Cole, ND, author of Ketotarian: The (Mostly) Plant-Based Plan to Burn Fat, Boost Your Energy, Crush Your Cravings, and Calm Inflammation.
“These [factors] can contribute more to poor health than the fat content itself.”
Do some people tolerate butter differently than others?
When it comes to butter, as with most of life, it’s different strokes for different folks. “A lot depends on your individual health case,” Cole explains. “For example, some people are sensitive to casein, the protein found in dairy products, including butter, and therefore should avoid it.”
Similarly, some people have trouble processing lactose, a type of sugar found in dairy products, and they may need to skip the butter. Still, butter has minimal lactose compared with milk, so some lactose-intolerant people find they can eat butter but not other dairy products.
And, of course, it also matters what else you’re eating. “I’m most interested in what people consume butter with,” says Christopher Gardener, PhD, a nutrition professor and researcher at Stanford University. “Are people using butter to sauté vegetables? And if they sauté them in oil rather than in butter, are they less likely to eat them? In that case, I’m OK if butter is a vegetable-supporting approach to culinary bliss.”
So, butter isn’t as harmful as believed . . . but is it health-enhancing?
To be clear, the most beneficial fats are not found in butter. The monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) in olive oil, and the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, flax, and walnuts, are still the superstars among healthy fats. They are one of the key reasons the Mediterranean diet prevails as an indisputably wise approach to eating.
But butter is a rich source of vitamins K2 and E, as well as beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Vitamins A, E, and K2 are also fat soluble, meaning they need fat in order to be absorbed by the body. That makes butter an ideal delivery system, providing both the nutrients and the means for the body to process them.
“Butter can be a way to get these plant compounds in the diet, together with the fat they need for bioavailability,” says functional nutritionist Deanna Minich, PhD, author of The Rainbow Diet.
Butter is also the richest available food source of the short-chain fatty acid butyrate, which aids gut health, she says. Butyrate has been shown to help improve GI function, reduce gut inflammation, and improve intestinal motility. Some research indicates that butyrate may also help protect against colon cancer.
“If we discovered butyrate today, we would call it a vitamin,” says Lipski. “Butyrate is an essential nutrient, and butter is a main source.”
Proponents of low- and no-carb diets sometimes cite such findings to advocate for diets high in fat, including saturated fat. Indeed, high-fat diets like the ketogenic protocol have shown promise in helping some people improve body composition and reset their metabolism.
But Lipski believes this says more about the sad state of the standard American diet than the healing properties of saturated fat. “What we know about the ketogenic diet is that it corrects metabolism for a lot of people, who, due to 21st-century living, have changes in their microbiome and dysbiosis and dysregulated metabolism. So going keto for a while can bring that back into balance.”
The key phrase there, however, is “for a while” — these diets are meant as a kickstart for healing, not as a long-term lifestyle strategy.
“[Ketogenic] normalizes microbiome function in the short term,” says Lipski. “We don’t have long-term studies of people on the ketogenic diet.”
Done indefinitely and without proper medical supervision, protocols like the ketogenic diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies of their own. (For more on the keto diet, see “What You Need to Know About the Keto Diet”.)
As always, it’s best to enjoy a diverse, whole-foods diet, with lots of plants, and then figure out how much butter is right for you.
“It’s different for every person,” says Cole. “It’s important to determine just how many healthy fats you need, and quality does matter.”
And, of course, pleasure does too.
A guide to butters — so you can choose the ones that are right for you.
Organic butter offers more healing omega-3 fatty acids than other butters. And it’s less likely to have high levels of toxins, which can accumulate in an animal’s fatty tissues.
Grassfed butter delivers more beta-carotene and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Beta-carotene is a potent antioxidant, and CLA can help improve body composition and reduce cardiovascular-disease risk. Some studies also show CLA may help protect against cancer.
Cultured butter is slightly fermented or aged. “Fermenting butter increases the amount of butyrate,” says nutritionist Liz Lipski, PhD, which is a win for gut health. It also has a slightly tangy flavor that many people enjoy.
Unsalted butter is largely a matter of taste preference compared with salted butter. Like butter, salt carries its own stigma when it comes to heart health — one that has been debunked in recent years. (For more on concerns about sodium, see “Is Salt Bad for You — Or Not?”.)
Ghee is a clarified butter in which the milk has been heated and the solids skimmed off. It can be used in all the same ways as butter, and because the solids have been removed, it is often more digestible for people who don’t tolerate casein or lactose. It contains the same nutrients as butter, including butyrate. Ghee is stable at room temperature, making it a good option for meals on the go or while camping. (For a tasty recipe for infused ghee, visit “Infused Ghee”.)
This article originally appeared in Experience Life, Life Time’s whole-life health and fitness magazine.