Last Updated on June 13, 2019 by Michael Joseph
Butter is a delicious dairy product that provides an almost pure source of fat.
Used in both recipes and as a cooking fat, butter enjoys popularity in cuisines around the world.
However, butter is a controversial ingredient in the nutrition world.
While some people say it is a healthy fat, others believe it can be harmful to heart health due to its saturated fat content.
This article examines the nutrition benefits—and potential concerns—of butter. What does the science say?
What Is Butter?
Butter is a dairy product made by isolating butterfat from cream. However, it still contains small amounts of dairy sugars (lactose) and proteins (such as casein).
With a melting point of approximately 32-35°C (90-95°F), butter is usually solid at room temperature (1).
Interestingly, the first butter likely came from sheep and goats milk, and historical references to this dairy fat go back thousands of years.
In fact, research suggests that butter consumption predates biblical times (2).
As a result, butter has been a long-valued ingredient in the human food chain.
However, in the last century or so, butter consumption fell due to competitors—such as margarine, shortening, and vegetable oils—being pushed as healthier choices.
In the present time, diverse opinions exist on the respective health merits of butter.
How Is Butter Used?
Almost every culture on earth uses butter, and different regions use it in diverse ways.
In the Western world, people commonly use butter in the following ways;
- Spread on sandwiches and crackers
- As a cooking fat for pan-frying
- A flavor-enhancing ingredient in numerous dishes
- In baking
In India, ghee, which is pure butterfat, is an essential cooking ingredient, and it plays a crucial role in various national curry dishes.
Traditional British desserts also commonly feature butter, and some of the most famous options include ‘buttermilk pie’ and ‘bread and butter pudding’.
For something completely different, ‘butter tea,’ locally known as ‘po cha’ is extremely popular in Tibet.
How Is Butter Made?
The production process of butter sounds effortless; simply churn cream until it becomes butter.
However, that was the traditional method of making butter, and commercial production can be quite complex, and it involves numerous steps.
The production process involves the following steps (3);
- After receiving whole milk, the cream is separated and then pasteurized at a temperature of 95°C (203°F).
- Following pasteurization, vacuum deaeration may be used to remove gases and oxygen if the cream has any undesirable taste/aroma properties.
- The next stage involves putting cream in a ‘ripening’ tank, where it is subjected to different temperatures to gain the desired structure.
- After 12-15 hours of ripening, the cream is pumped into a churn, where it is “violently agitated” to break down the milk fat globules, which thickens the cream to a texture closer to butter.
- Once the churning is complete, producers drain the remaining liquid (buttermilk) away. The butter is then further churned until it reaches the desired consistency, at which point salt may or may not need adding (which would require a further salt distribution process).
The following nutritional values show the full nutrition profile of butter based on a one-tablespoon (14-gram) serving (4).
|Saturated Fat||7.2 g|
|Monounsaturated Fat||3.3 g|
|Polyunsaturated Fat||0.4 g|
|Omega-3 Fatty Acids||0.04 g|
|Omega-6 Fatty Acids||0.26 g|
As shown, butter is primarily a source of fat—mainly saturated fat—and it contains minimal carbohydrate and protein.
|Vitamin A||97.1 mcg RAE||10.8 %|
|Vitamin E||0.33 mg||1.6 %|
|Vitamin K||0.99 mcg||1.2 %|
|Choline||2.67 mg||0.5 %|
|Cobalamin (B12)||0.02 mcg||0.4 %|
|Vitamin D||1.46 IU||0.4 %|
|Riboflavin (B2)||0.01 mg||0.3 %|
|Phosphorus||3.41 mg||0.3 %|
|Calcium||3.41 mg||0.3 %|
|Selenium||0.14 mcg||0.2 %|
|Pantothenic Acid (B5)||0.02 mg||0.2 %|
Aside from containing vitamin A in its most bioavailable form (retinol), butter is not particularly rich in nutrients.
In addition to the nutrients shown in the table, butter also contains (lower) trace amounts of numerous other vitamins and minerals.
Benefits of Using Butter
Now that we know the nutrition profile of butter, we can look at some potential benefits that using this dairy fat may have.
1) Butter Is Relatively Heat-Stable and Does Not Easily Oxidize
When we heat any fat, there is the potential for the fatty acids to breakdown and oxidize.
While research into oxidized fats is ongoing, studies suggest that consuming oxidized fats can have various detrimental health effects.
According to animal studies in this area, consuming oxidized fats can lead to;
However, there is little research in this area in humans. For ethical reasons, it is challenging to study the effects of something proposed to be harmful.
For this reason, butter is a reasonably good choice for pan-frying. However, ghee is better suited to cooking at high heat temperatures.
We will discuss why later.
2) A Good Source of Vitamin A
One tablespoon of butter provides 97.1 mcg of retinol activity equivalents, which is equal to 10% of the daily value.
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that is particularly important for immune health and the visual system. This vitamin also has a crucial role in the maintenance of healthy skin, teeth, and tissues (12, 13).
3) Butter Contains CLA, Which Has Potential Health Benefits
Butter provides a natural source of trans-fat called conjugated linoleic acid, otherwise known as CLA (14).
Despite being a type of trans fat, research suggests that CLA has very different effects from human-made trans fatty acids. For instance, in a randomized controlled trial featuring twenty-nine healthy adults, daily CLA-rich butter supplementation reduced several markers of systemic inflammation (15).
There are also claims that CLA may be beneficial for losing weight. However, the existing evidence for this is inconsistent.
It is also worth noting that butter from animals raised on pasture contains more CLA than butter from grain-fed animals.
In a study, researchers found that butter from cows fed on 100% permanent pasture contained up to 22.1 mg of CLA per gram, which was more than five times the amount that butter from cows supplemented with animal feed had (18).
4) Butter Is the Richest Dietary Source of Butyrate
Butyrate (butyric acid) is a short-chain fatty acid that we can produce naturally through the microbial fermentation of soluble fiber in the gut (19).
However, certain foods, such as butter, also contain this interesting fatty acid. Gram for gram, butter contains more butyrate than any other food.
On the positive side, research suggests that butyrate may;
- Possess anti-inflammatory properties (20).
- Have protective mechanisms against oxidative stress and atherosclerosis (cardiovascular disease) (21).
More research via human studies is necessary to ascertain the effects of butyrate on human health properly.
Potential Drawbacks and Health Concerns
Now that we have examined the benefits, here are some potential drawbacks to consider.
1) Butter Can Burn At High Temperatures
As we looked at earlier, butterfat is one of the most heat-stable fats, and it does not oxidize easily.
However, the problem here is that butter doesn’t only contain fat; butter is also a source of protein and sugar (milk solids).
Unfortunately, the sugars and proteins in butter cannot withstand the same temperatures as the fat can.
In other words; the milk solids will burn and start to brown before the butterfat reaches its smoke point.
For this reason, ghee, which is 100% pure butterfat, performs better than butter at high temperatures.
Ghee also has a much higher smoke point (24).
See here for more on the differences between butter and ghee.
2) Dairy Allergies and Sensitivities
Although butter only contains low concentrations of sugar (lactose) and protein solids, these small amounts can still be enough to cause adverse reactions.
3) Butter Can Raise LDL Cholesterol (LDL-C) Levels
Butter is primarily a source of saturated fatty acids.
While not all saturated fats have the same effect, some types of saturated fatty acids can cause plasma levels of LDL-C to rise (29).
On this note, the saturated fatty acids which have the most significant effect on LDL levels are lauric acid, myristic acid, and most of all, palmitic acid (30).
With this being said, which are the most predominant fatty acids in butter?
Saturated Fatty Acid Profile of Butter
For those who wish to know the individual saturated fatty acids contained in butter, the table below shows this fatty acid breakdown (4);
|Saturated Fatty Acid||Amount|
|Butyric acid||0.46 g|
|Caproic acid||0.29 g|
|Caprylic acid||0.17 g|
|Capric acid||0.36 g|
|Lauric acid||0.37 g|
|Myristic acid||1.06 g|
|Palmitic acid||3.08 g|
|Margaric acid||0.08 g|
|Stearic acid||1.42 g|
|Arachidic acid||0.02 g|
As we can see from the table, palmitic acid is the most concentrated fatty acid in butter.
Therefore, it is not surprising to see randomized trials demonstrate that butter can lead to higher levels of LDL (31).
Some researchers believe that limiting butter consumption is important because higher LDL-C levels are associated with cardiovascular risk (32).
However, it is worth remembering that an association does not automatically infer causation.
Furthermore, some researchers point out that butter also raises HDL levels, which is associated with reduced cardiovascular risk. The fatty acids in butter also tend to increase larger LDL particles rather than the more atherogenic smaller particles (33).
Unfortunately, there is no conclusive science in this area, and research is ongoing.
Research On Butter and Cardiovascular Disease
As we have just discussed, some people have concerns over the potential LDL cholesterol-raising properties of butter.
However, what research is available on how butter directly affects cardiovascular risk?
Firstly, a systematic review of 15 large cohort studies, featuring 636,151 participants, examined associations between butter consumption and cardiovascular disease.
This study found that butter “was not significantly associated with any cardiovascular disease” (32).
Other studies analyzing the cardiovascular risk posed by dairy fats have made similar findings.
Butter often makes front page new, and the media tends to either overhype or overly-demonize it.
The truth is probably somewhere in between these two positions.
While butter is not a significant source of nutrients, it does offer a fair amount of vitamin A and several other, potentially beneficial, compounds.
Although large intakes of butter can lead to higher LDL levels, there is no evidence directly linking it to cardiovascular disease.
Overall, I would say that, in reasonable amounts, butter is a perfectly healthy ingredient that adds a delicious flavor to food.