Butter boasts a pretty big fan club. People love butter on toast, butter on a bagel, butter on...well, anything! Butter is a versatile, savory fat that gives texture to baked goods, can be used to add the perfect sear to a steak, or drizzled on popcorn like liquid gold. But while you are planning the perfect butter board for your next party or sitting down to enjoy some eggs benedict on Sunday morning you may find yourself wondering: is butter healthy?
Butter contains valuable nutrients that your body needs. It also packs a big calorie punch and contains a ton of fat. Unfortunately, it's the kind of fat that may clog your arteries and lead to heart problems or strokes, according to some health experts. Other nutrition experts have started to question this connection, but until we know more, health practitioners still advise that we enjoy butter in moderation.
Butter Nutrition Facts and Potential Benefits
Butter is made by churning milk, which breaks open little sacs of fat that float throughout the liquid. The sticky fat then clumps together and, after a while, forms a ball of butter.
According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), here's how butter nutrition breaks down for a one tablespoon serving:
- Calories: 102
- Total Fat: 11.5 grams
- Saturated Fat: 7.17 grams
- Calcium: 3.4 grams
- Phosphorus: 3.4 grams
- Potassium: 3.4 grams
- Vitamin A: 11% of what you need daily
Butter also contains small amounts of Vitamins E, B12, and K. And this yummy fat contains other compounds that may be beneficial to our health.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid
All dairy products have something called conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA. Researchers started getting excited about CLA when research in the 1980s found out that CLA lowered the risk of cancer in mice.
Other animal studies found that CLA can help your immune system, decrease the plaque on your blood vessel walls (atherosclerosis), and even lower your risk for diabetes. If these effects prove the same in human trials, we might get to have our cake and eat it too. But research in humans hasn't quite panned out yet. And of course, because of butter's high-calorie count, you probably can't get your CLA from butter alone.
Butyrate is made in the gut of all mammals as they digest fiber. This molecule is found in butter and other dairy products. Researchers have discovered some evidence to suggest that butyrate can have positive effects on diabetes and obesity, intestinal disorders, and colorectal cancer. It could even improve some brain disorders. But more evidence is needed before we know for sure how beneficial butyrate really is.
Is the Fat in Butter Healthy?
Fat is broken down into a few categories: saturated and unsaturated. The American Heart Association (AHA) tells us that saturated fats stay solid at room temperature (like lard), whereas other fats are liquids (like olive or avocado oil). Most of the fat in butter is saturated. There is a third type of fat called trans fat that has been mostly removed from food products due to health concerns.
Saturated fat can be found in animal-based foods like meat and dairy. Saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood. The AHA says that too much "bad" cholesterol (also known as LDL cholesterol) can cause fat deposits to build up on the walls of your arteries and veins.
If these globs of fat break loose, they can go to your heart and cause a heart attack, or to your brain and cause a stroke. That's why you see such strict recommendations about how much fat you eat. The AHA advises that you consume no more than 5% to 6% of your total daily calories from saturated fat.
Unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature. These fats are found in many cooking oils and the AHA recommends you let these types of fat make up the majority of your daily fat intake. There are two types of unsaturated fat: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated fats help lower bad LDL cholesterol in your blood. You can find these fats in:
- Canola oil
- Olive oil
- Peanut oil
- Sunflower seed oil
- Sesame oil
Polyunsaturated fats are built a little differently than their monounsaturated cousins, but they also work to decrease LDL cholesterol. According to the AHA, you can find polyunsaturated fats in:
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
Now, while you may not want to pour olive oil on a bagel, you can incorporate these oils into your cooking and baking.
Around the early 1900s, scientists found that if they injected hydrogen molecules into liquid vegetable oils, they lasted much longer. This process creates trans fats. When researchers started connecting saturated fat with heart disease, food suppliers started searching for alternatives.
These experts looked at trans fats and thought they would make a great substitute for LDL-raising saturated fats. Years later, however, studies found that trans fats not only increase LDL cholesterol, but they also decrease your good (HDL) cholesterol. Yikes! Trans fats used to be found in:
- Baked goods
- Fried food
- Some margarine spreads
- Stick margarine
If you're looking at a label for trans fats, they may be called "partially hydrogenated oils." However, in 2018 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started taking steps to remove trans fat from packaged foods. Food manufacturers were supposed to remove all trans fat from their products by 2020.
Are Butter Alternatives Better?
Whether or not butter is healthy has been a source of controversy for years. In the 1970s, research showed a strong connection between saturated fats and heart disease. However, many studies since have disputed this claim. A study published in 2017 did confirm that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat decreased heart attacks and strokes.
However, study results have been so consistently inconsistent that experts and healthcare providers around the world loudly disagree with each other and recommend different levels of saturated fats in the diet. Amidst this controversy, the AHA still recommends a maximum of 13 grams of saturated fat per day, based on a daily 2,000-calorie diet.
Okay, so you can't eat a stick of butter a day. But what if you are used to adding butter to everything? You do have a few options to switch out that butter here and there.
Butter vs. Ghee
A butter substitute used around the world for many decades, ghee is made by heating butter to separate the milk from the fat. The fat left over is called ghee. Ghee has slightly more calories than butter - 120 vs. 102 per tablespoon, but its fat content is almost the same.
One potential benefit to ghee for some people is that its creation process removes milk and leaves just the fat, so it is naturally lactose-free. It also has a higher smoke point, so you can cook with less risk of burning.
Butter vs. Margarine
As we established earlier, margarine has long been touted as a fantastic butter alternative - the best of both worlds! However, firmer margarine (like the kind that comes in sticks) used to contain trans fats, which are just as bad as saturated fats. However, now many brands are available that are free of trans fat.
In addition, margarine makers have to report levels of trans fats in their products, so you can look for trans fat on the label, or look for partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list. If your favorite margarine is free of these pesky fats, you're in the clear!
Butter vs. Oil
Oil can often replace butter in cooking and baking. It doesn't work well if it must be creamed with sugar, as in a cookie or icing recipe. However, it can be used as a substitute in some baking recipes and can be used to saute vegetables or sear meat.
Cooking and baking with oil will produce a different taste than butter, but many cultures use oil exclusively. Whether you choose olive oil or canola, sunflower oil or coconut, you can experiment and find what you like best.
Butter - the real deal - holds a high place in a lot of hearts and (thankfully!) and can be good for you in small amounts. Once you've hit your butter quota for the day, explore the world of oils in your day-to-day cooking. You may find a new favorite!