Butter is making a comeback as a healthy fat. But are the claims for the benefits of butter for real? How does butter fit into a healthy diet?
Johanna writes: "I was recently surprised to hear a nutritionist encourage people to use butter, calling it a healthy fat. I've always avoided butter because of the saturated fat. Yet, a quick online search shows multiple articles saying butter is making a comeback as a healthy fat. Can this be true?"
It’s true that butter contains saturated fat. It’s also true that saturated fat’s reputation as an artery clogger has been undergoing some rehabilitation in recent years. Diets that are high in saturated fat can raise your cholesterol levels. But as I’ve explored in several previous podcasts, the links between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease are a lot more complex than we once thought. In fact, having some saturated fat in your diet may actually be good for your heart and other organs.
Fats in Butter
Butter contains more than just saturated fat. People are often surprised to learn that about a third of the fat in butter is actually monounsaturated—the same sort of heart-healthy fat that’s in olive oil and avocado. The same or similar is true of most animal foods, by the way. Although we tend to think of meat, eggs, and dairy products as containing mostly or only saturated fat, this is not the case. Up to half of the fat in beef is monounsaturated. Two thirds of the fat in an egg is unsaturated. Ironically, the only foods I can think of that contain virtually all saturated fat are plant based: coconut and palm kernel oil.
Nutrients in Butter
Butter also contains a variety of nutrients. It’s a good source of vitamin A—which about 40% of Americans do not get enough of. It also contains modest amounts of vitamins D and E—although you’ll get more of both of these nutrients from olive oil. But butter also features a few nutrients that are not particularly widespread in the food supply, including CLA, MCTs, vitamin K2, choline, and butyrate.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a fatty acid that is found mostly in red meat and butterfat; Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are found in butter and other full-fat dairy products but also coconut and palm oil. Although you’ll see a lot about the health benefits of CLA and MCTs online, the research to support these claims has been rather underwhelming, so far.
Butter is also one of relatively few dietary sources for vitamin K2, a nutrient that is important for strong bones. Although, if it’s K2 you’re after, there are better sources, such as natto (a fermented soybean preparation common in Japan) and other fermented foods.
Choline is an essential nutrient that has many important functions in the body, including synthesizing neurotransmitters and protecting neurons. The average intake for this nutrient is only about half of what’s considered to be adequate. Although butter does contain small amounts of choline, whole eggs, meat, fish, and cruciferous vegetables are much better sources.
And, finally, butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid that has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects, especially in the gut. Butyrate is produced on site in the gut by your intestinal bacteria, as I talked about in my recent episode on postbiotics. So, one way to get more butyrate in your gut is to eat more fiber, which promotes the health of those bacteria. Another way is to eat foods that contain butyrate, including butter.
Even though butter isn’t exactly a nutrient powerhouse, it’s clearly not just empty calories, either. But is that enough to justify rebranding butter as a healthy fat?