Butter is a popular dairy product that provides an almost pure source of fat.
People traditionally use butter as a cooking fat, for baking, and in diverse dishes from around the world.
However, butter is a controversial ingredient in the nutrition world.
On this note, some people believe butter could be harmful to heart health due to its saturated fat content. In contrast, others believe butter is fine in moderation and a source of nutrients.
With that said, let’s objectively examine butter, its nutritional values, and the potential benefits and downsides it offers.
Table of contents
What Is Butter?
Butter is a dairy product made by isolating butterfat from cream. However, the end product still contains small amounts of dairy sugars (lactose) and proteins (such as casein).
With a melting point of approximately 33°C (91°F), butter is usually solid at room temperature (1).
Interestingly, the first butter likely came from sheep and goat’s milk, and historical references to this dairy fat go back thousands of years (2).
As a result, butter has been a long-valued ingredient in the human food chain.
However, in the last century, an aisle of competitors has emerged to butter. These alternate options include margarine, shortening, and vegetable oils.
How Is Butter Made?
The production process of butter may sound effortless; churn cream until it becomes butter.
However, that was the traditional method of making butter. In the present time, modern commercial production can be pretty complex. Production involves numerous steps designed to quickly produce large amounts of butter at scale.
Here is a summary of the production process (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.
- Lastly, salt may or may not be added, which would require a further salt distribution process.
This section shows the full nutritional values for unsalted butter per tablespoon (14g) serving. All nutritional values are from the USDA’s FoodData Central database (4).
|Name||Amount||% Daily Value|
- Vitamin A RAE: 11% of the daily value (DV)
- Vitamin E: 2% DV
- Vitamin B12: 1% DV
- Vitamin K: 0.8% DV
- Choline: 0.5% DV
- Riboflavin (B2): 0.4% DV
- Folate: 0.1% DV
- Thiamin (B1): <0.1% DV
- Niacin (B3): <0.01% DV
- Vitamin B6: 0% DV
- Vitamin C: 0% DV
- Calcium: 0.3% DV
- Selenium: 0.3% DV
- Copper: 0.2% DV
- Zinc: 0.1% DV
- Iron: <0.1% DV
- Magnesium: <0.1% DV
- Phosphorus: <0.1% DV
- Potassium: <0.1% DV
- Sodium: <0.1% DV
- Manganese: <0.1% DV
Here is a summary of some of the beneficial aspects of butter.
Butter Is a Good Source of Vitamin A
As shown in the nutritional values, butter is a good source of vitamin A.
Aside from vitamin A, butter also provides smaller amounts of vitamin E and K.
Butter Can Enhance the Absorption of Fat-Soluble Vitamins
Butter can help enhance the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins in foods like vegetables.
In other words, this is not a benefit exclusive to butter.
Butter Contains High Amounts of Butyrate
Butyrate (butyric acid) is a short-chain fatty acid produced through the microbial fermentation of fiber/non-digestible carbohydrates in the colon (25).
However, some foods are naturally high in butyric acid, and butter is one.
Butyrate has several potential benefits for health, with anti-inflammatory properties in the colon being one of the most researched areas (26).
Notably, butyrate is thought to have an exceptionally high potential for treating inflammatory bowel disease (27).
Interestingly, a 2019 systematic review found that individuals with inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis had lower butyrate levels (28).
But It Is Not the Best Source of Butyrate For the Colon
On the downside, there is a problem with the idea of butter being the best source of butyrate for its colon-friendly benefits.
Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid, and like all short-chain fatty acids, it is absorbed mainly in the small intestine (and a little in the stomach) (29).
In other words: consuming X amounts of dietary butyrate does not mean this amount will reach the colon.
Enabling butyrate supplements to survive digestion and reach the colon has also been a challenge for companies trying to manufacture them (30).
It is important to note that this does not mean dietary butyrate can have no benefits.
However, most research on the beneficial effects refers to butyrate produced through microbial fermentation in (and its impact within) the colon.
Butter Contains CLA, Which Has Potential Benefits
Butter contains a fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a type of natural trans fat.
Despite being a trans fatty acid, it does not have the same detrimental effects as synthetic (man-made) trans fats.
CLA may even have some potential benefits.
Research on Supplementary CLA
In a randomized controlled trial, a CLA-rich butter reduced several mediators associated with sub-clinical systemic inflammation (31).
Additionally, a 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis looked at the impact of CLA on body composition.
The review found that over 13 trials, CLA slightly reduced body weight at a statistically significant level. However, this was not considered clinically considerable at an average weight reduction of 0.52 kg (32).
Furthermore, a 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis also demonstrated that CLA was significantly associated with (slightly) reduced body weight (33).
However, in this systematic review and meta-analysis, it is important to note that daily doses over 3.4 grams had the most effect. The researchers noted: “Our findings revealed that CLA with 3.4 g/day or greater, in subjects older than 44 years for more than 12 weeks had the highest effect on body weight.” (33).
Thus, even at the highest (41mg per gram) amount, nearly 100 grams of butter would be required to provide the same amount of CLA as the optimal dose in the systematic review. It is unrealistic to consume this amount each day.
Butter also has some potential downsides, which we will summarize in this section.
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 significant elevations to blood levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol (10).
On this note, let’s examine butter’s saturated fatty acid profile.
Saturated Fatty Acid Profile of Butter
The table below shows the fatty acid breakdown of the individual saturated fatty acids contained in butter (4):
|Saturated Fatty Acid||Amount|
As we can see from the table, palmitic acid is the most concentrated fatty acid in butter.
For a 2000 calorie diet, this would be 22 grams of saturated fat per day. On a 2500 calorie diet, this would be 27 grams per day.
Butter Can Burn At High Temperatures
As previously mentioned, butter is not 100% pure fat, and it contains trace amounts of protein and sugar (milk solids).
Unfortunately, the sugars and proteins in butter will burn at a lower temperature than the fatty acids. Thus, butter has a lower smoke point than pure fats like ghee.
Ghee is a popular cooking fat made from butter and used in South Asia and the Middle East. The difference is that the protein and sugars found within butter are removed in ghee production and similar foods like clarified butter.
The smoke point of butter is 150°C (302°F). In contrast, ghee (and clarified butter) has a smoke point of 250°C (482°F) (24).
Generally speaking, this should not be much of an issue for pan-frying something in butter for a short time.
However, butter is not as suited to extended, high-heat temperatures as other fats.
Research On Butter and Cardiovascular Disease
As discussed earlier in the article, there are concerns over butter’s potential LDL cholesterol-raising properties. Numerous studies show that butter can raise LDL-C levels.
However, not just one food determines the cholesterol profile – it is the overall dietary pattern.
Regardless of its links with higher LDL-C, is butter linked to cardiovascular disease and mortality in observational studies?
Here is a summary of more extensive recent studies in this area.
Yu Zhang, Pan Zhuang, Fei Wu, Wei He, Lei Mao, Wei Jia, Yiju Zhang, Xiaoqian Chen, Jingjing Jiao (2021).
Title: Cooking oil/fat consumption and deaths from cardiometabolic diseases and other causes: prospective analysis of 521,120 individuals
This study followed 521,120 individuals aged between 50 and 71 for 16 years.
After adjusting for potential confounding variables (such as physical activity and smoking status), for each daily tablespoon of oil/fat the participants consumed:
- Butter was associated with an 8% higher risk of cardiometabolic mortality
- Margarine was associated with a 6% higher cardiometabolic mortality risk
- Olive oil was associated with a 4% lower risk of cardiometabolic mortality
- No findings for other oils (corn, canola) were statistically significant
The main takeaway from this study is that the findings suggested substituting olive oil for butter would benefit cardiovascular health.
Marianne Uhre Jakobsen, Ellen Trolle, Malene Outzen, Heddie Mejborn, Manja G. Gronberg, Christian Boge Lydngaard, Anders Stockmarr, Stine K. Veno, Anette Bysted (2021).
Title: Intake of dairy products and associations with major atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies
Four studies involving 128,757 participants showed no associations between butter intake and coronary heart disease when comparing the highest versus lowest intakes (range: 0-63g per day).
Additionally, a linear dose-response meta-analysis found no association between butter intake and coronary heart disease.
Laura Pimpkin, Jason H Y Wu, Hila Haskelberg, Liana Del Gobbo, Dariush Mozaffarian (2016).
Title: Is Butter Back? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Butter Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Total Mortality
This 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis examined butter consumption and the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and total mortality.
The review found that butter consumption was weakly associated with all-cause mortality (1% increased risk per daily tablespoon).
The authors noted that the findings do not support any particular need for dietary guidance on increasing or decreasing butter consumption.
How Is Butter Used?
Many cultures around the world use butter and different regions use it in diverse ways.
In Western countries, people commonly use butter in the following ways:
- Spread on sandwiches, toast, and crackers
- As a cooking fat for pan-frying
- A flavor-enhancing ingredient in numerous dishes
- In baking and desserts
In India, ghee, which is pure butterfat, is an essential (and staple) cooking ingredient. Here, it plays a crucial role in various national curry dishes.
In some countries, people even drink butter. For instance, butter tea (known locally as ‘po cha’) is popular in Tibet and contains black tea, spices, butter, and salt.
Common Questions About Butter
A typical serving size is a ‘pat of butter,’ equivalent to around five grams (one teaspoon).
It is the overall diet that will determine weight gain or loss. Butter can be part of a weight loss diet, and it can also be part of a diet that results in weight gain. However, for those trying to lose weight, it would make sense to limit the intake of added fats and oils.
Is Butter a Healthy Choice?
Whether butter (or any food) is beneficial or detrimental depends on the individual’s overall diet.
On the positive side, butter is a decent source of vitamin A, it tastes great, and it can help make healthy foods (like vegetables) more appealing.
However, it can raise LDL-C levels, so there are questions over its impact on long-term cardiovascular risk.
On this note, individuals trying to lower/manage LDL-C levels should see improvements from using something like extra virgin olive oil rather than butter. Extra virgin olive oil also tends to be consistently associated with positive health outcomes.
That said, studies show mixed associations between butter and cardiovascular mortality, and it is the overall dietary pattern that matters most for health outcomes.
Butter can be part of an overall healthy diet, but it shouldn’t be over-consumed, and it is probably better to stick with recommended serving sizes.