Butter has been a staple of dairy-producing cultures for millenia, but in the mid-20th century public opinion shifted away from saturated fats and then away from fats entirely, leading butter to be replaced by margarine.
We now know that fats are an important part of a healthy diet--especially unsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil, avocados, and salmon. But what about saturated fats? What about butter?
Yes, saturated fats have a more complicated impact on health than unsaturated fats, and you should seek to make the swap where you can. But butter really is back; US consumption has recently reached a 40-year high of almost 6 pounds per person.
Butter’s reputation has been rehabilitated and it is once again recognized as an important contributor to a nutritious diet.
Where does it come from?
To anyone who’s visited a pioneer village and took a turn with the butter churn, butter’s origins are no mystery. To make butter, just churn cream from milk until the butterfat separates from the buttermilk and you’re left with a semisolid brick of fat that is great to spread on toast.
In modern times, butter is made through sophisticated manufacturing processes that improve the consistency and output of butter production. As much as a third of the world’s milk production is funneled to make butter.
Different variations of butter have slightly different manufacturing processes: whipped butter is whipped with air or nitrogen gas to make it more spreadable, and European-style butter is churned more slowly and for longer periods of time, which leaves the butter with a higher proportion of butterfat.
Cultured butter is made from milk that is slowly fermented after pasteurization and then churned in the European style. Fermentation adds a tangy flavor and breaks down much of the lactose, making this variation especially easy to digest and somewhat higher in vitamins.
Regardless of the steps involved in the churning process, milk from the same cow will usually produce the same quality butter. Changes in the cow’s diet, meanwhile, can mean big changes in the nutritional quality of its butter.
What makes it super?
Fat-Soluble Vitamins A, D, E, and K2
Butter is a rich source of vitamins A, D, E, and K2. All of these vitamins are fat-soluble, and they are absorbed more efficiently into the body when they’re eaten with fats. Butter serves as both source and vehicle to get these important nutrients into your system.
That’s particularly good news when it comes to vitamin D, since a majority of Americans are deficient in this essential vitamin. Boosting dietary intake of vitamin D, especially if you’re not getting daily sun, will improve health from mood to bone strength to immune system function.
It’s also good news for vitamin A. The most famous variant of vitamin A is carotene, the orange pigment that gives carrots their color. However, the body can’t use carotene: it first needs to convert it into retinol. Butter contains some carotene--that’s what makes it yellow--but the majority of animal-sourced vitamin A is in the more bioavailable form, retinol. Adequate dietary vitamin A supports healthy skin, eye health, and the immune system.
It’s important to note: The vitamin content of butter is dependent on the diet of the source animals. Butter made from the milk of pasture-fed cows will have a much higher vitamin content than if it were made from lot-fed dairy cows, so it’s worth checking your source.
Sustained Energy and Weight Loss
The body metabolizes fats more slowly than it does carbohydrates, making them a longer-lasting and sustained energy source. This means that eating healthy fats in moderation can help you feel satisfied for longer and limit snacking.
Fats also slow down the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream, providing a buffer against sugar rushes and potentially lowering the risk of diabetes. Also, keeping blood sugar levels even is good for reducing general inflammation throughout the body that can be caused by excess blood sugar spikes.
Consuming fats stimulates the release of bile. This substance helps to break down fats in the digestive system, but it also is the vehicle through which the body removes many waste products.
Bile is also essential for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins!
Protection Against Cancer
Butter contains two anti-carcinogenic compounds, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and butyric acid, which hamper the formation and proliferation of tumors. That means that butter can be an important part of your anti-cancer lifestyle.
CLA has also recently been found to protect against obesity and atherosclerosis (the buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances on artery walls).
How can I bring the benefits of butter into my diet?
It won’t take as much imagination to incorporate butter into your diet as it would for other superfoods (hello, elderberry!)--after all, butter is ubiquitous in cooking, in baking, and as a spread.
However, there are certain tricks to getting the most benefit out of your favorite animal fat.
Cook with butter instead of vegetable oils, especially at higher temperatures. Vegetable oils denature at high temps, but animal fats such as butter maintain their structure. Denatured vegetable oils are a source of inflammation and should be avoided. Besides holding up better to the heat, butter adds a sweet creamy flavor boost and richness to your favorite foods. It’s a delicious addition to many dishes.
Eat a bit of butter with vitamin supplements to increase the absorption of supplemental D, E, A, or K2. As we age our ability to absorb nutrients degrades and we can benefit from boosting absorption in this way.
Eat cold butter with carbs, such as a pat of butter on pancakes or a baguette, to slow absorption of the carbohydrates into your system.
Add butter to your coffee to make “bulletproof coffee.” This keto breakfast option uses the stabilizing and sustained-energy properties of butter to jumpstart your morning and lessen the jitters and crash that might come with coffee consumption.
And finally, remember that all things are best in moderation. Saturated fats like butter can carry health risks when eaten in excess. But there is a lot to celebrate about adding some butter into your life, not least is that it’s delicious!