Is Butter Healthy?

A lot of people avoid butter (even we were guilty!), but if you had to, could you explain why? You may be surprised to learn that research doesn't necessarily back up the decades-long boycott many have on butter.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Full disclosure: I’m completely aware that the statement I’m about to make will cause apoplexy among the food police, conventional dietitians and other members of the health establishment. So here goes: Butter is a perfectly healthy food.

What’s more, when it comes from organically raised, pasture-fed cattle, butter can even be a “health” food!

What, you say? How can that be?

To understand why the arguments against butter are flawed, you have to rethink some of what you now believe about both saturated fat and cholesterol, since these two substances form the heart of the case against butter.

Briefly, the argument goes like this: Butter contains saturated fat. Saturated fat is bad because it raises cholesterol. Cholesterol is bad because it causes heart disease. Ergo, avoid butter like the plague.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Butter does indeed contain saturated fat. (Not as much as you might think, by the way. At least 30% of the fat in butter is monounsaturated, the same “heart-healthy” fat found in olive oil.)

But study after recent study has failed to find a clear relationship between saturated fat consumption and either heart disease or death. Our bodies make (and need) saturated fat. And, in 2004, researchers writing in the highly respected American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that before proceeding with an ill-founded quest to eliminate all saturated fat from our diet, we might be wise to wait until research indicates exactly what amounts and types of saturated fat (yes, there are different types!) are ideal for human health.

In their view – and mine – some saturated fat is not only necessary in our diet, it may even be good for us! Removing healthy traditional foods like butter, eggs and avocados from our diet because they contain some saturated fat is, in my judgment, both unwise and unjustified by the research.

So, maybe some saturated fat isn’t bad, you say, but what about its effect on cholesterol? Well, the truth is that cholesterol, high or low, is not a disease. It’s a blood measurement. And its relationship to heart disease – hold on to your hats – is far from settled. According to a 2009 study published in the American Heart Journal, researchers found that just over half of all heart attack victims have normal cholesterol and half of all people with “elevated” cholesterol have no heart problems whatsoever.

Ok, so butter and saturated fat aren’t actively bad for you. Why are they good?

The impact of saturated fat on cholesterol is actually quite nuanced.

We now know that there are not just two kinds of cholesterol (the so-called “good” HDL and “bad” LDL). Both have many subtypes, and they behave very differently in the body. Some LDL is actually made up of big, fluffy molecules that do little harm to the body (LDLa), while some is made up of small, pellet-like molecules, which are dangerous (LDLb). This is important, because saturated fat actually raises both HDL and the harmless LDLa much more than it raises the not-so-harmless LDLb. The result is that while total cholesterol goes up slightly, your overall blood lipid profile improves.

So, the amount of saturated fat in butter is really not a concern. If it raises your cholesterol at all, it will wind up raising the good fractions way more than the bad fractions. There’s really no need to avoid butter based solely on its saturated fat content.

Need more convincing?

Butter is a good source of vitamin A, which is necessary for maintaining good vision and is critical for the optimal functioning of your immune system. Butter also contains other fat-soluble vitamins – E, K and D – albeit in small amounts.

And – here’s the big surprise – organic butter from healthy, grass-fed animals is rich in healthful fats such as omega-3s, which are minimally present in the meat, milk and butter from grain-fed counterparts.

Further, butter from grass-fed animals also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a very healthy fat that has been shown to possess anti-carcinogenic properties. (Conversely, there is less CLA in the butter, meat or milk of grain-fed animals.) In fact, the health potential of CLA is great enough to have been the subject of an entire research conference (“Perspectives on Conjugated Linoleic Acid Research: Current Status and Future Directions” conference held at Bethesda, Maryland, in May 2002). You can read it at your leisure on the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements website.

Mary G. Enig, PhD, author of the acclaimed textbook Know Your Fats (Bethesda Press, 2000) and one of the country’s most respected lipid biochemists, says the fat in butter includes many healthy components that fly under the radar. One example: lauric acid, a fatty acid that inhibits the growth of pathogens. Dr. Enig also points out that butter contains glycolipids, a special kind of fat that has anti-infective properties, as well as the aforementioned CLA, which she confirms as “having anti-carcinogenic properties.”

How Much To Eat

When using a Clean Eating-approved grass-fed, organic butter in your cooking (like Organic Valley, Clover Organic Farm or Horizon Dairy), it’s very important to apply clean-eating common sense principles to portion sizes. Butter is still very much a fat, and at about 11 grams per tablespoon (seven of those saturated), you’ll want to limit to one to two tablespoons per recipe to feed a family of four or more. Understand, even though our view of butter and its benefits is being updated, the evidence from current research does not suggest that you should now include butter with every meal.


Trending on Clean Eating

Show Your Liver Some Love: A Clean Eating Webinar

Join Clean Eating dietitians Tiffani Bachus and Erin Macdonald for an exclusive webinar all about liver health and wellness.