Health Benefits of Butter

For centuries, many cultures around the globe have valued butter for its life-sustaining properties. A dentist-turned-researcher, Weston A. Price, studied native diets in the 1930s and found that butter was a staple for many vibrantly healthy peoples.[1] The groups he studied particularly valued the deep yellow butter produced by cows feeding on rapidly-growing green grass. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1950s that the food industry began to turn liquid vegetables oils into solid fats with a process called hydrogenation, to supply the budding fast food and snack food industries. Hydrogenation turns oils (like soy, corn, or cottonseed) into margarine and vegetable shortening, which are used in most all processed foods including salad dressings, crackers, fast food, baked goods, and most fried foods. For decades, these modified fats have been promoted as “healthy alternatives” to butter, but unbeknownst to many, they are actually a key ingredient to disease promotion!

During hydrogenation, liquid vegetable oils are hardened by the addition of hydrogen atoms, toxic elements (e.g. nickel oxide), emulsifiers, and are subjected to high temperatures (to remove the odors). Dyes and flavors are added to make the product resemble the real thing – butter. An “added bonus” of this process is the production of abnormally-shaped molecules known as trans fatty acids. These man-made trans fats are toxic to the body, but, unfortunately, the digestive system does not recognize them as such. Instead of being eliminated, trans fats are incorporated into cell membranes as if they were normally shaped fats – essentially making body cells partially hydrogenated![2]

Negative press keeps mounting on trans-fatty acids. As early as the 1940s, researchers found a strong correlation between cancer and the consumption of fat. Because the fats used were hydrogenated fats, the blame was placed on saturated fat, when trans fats may have been to blame.[3] Hydrogenation-generated trans fats block utilization of essential fatty acids, such as DHA, which can lead to increased blood cholesterol and immune system dysfunction.[4] Their consumption has also been associated with atherosclerosis, diabetes, obesity, decreased visual acuity, and problems with bones and tendons.[5],[6],[7] In 2002 the National Academy of Sciences attempted to set a safe intake level for trans-fatty acids and concluded, “the only safe intake of trans fat is zero.”[8]

A Health-promoting Trans Fatty Acid

Butter contains no industrial trans fats. However, it does contain a trans fat—CLA (conjugated linoleic acid)—that promotes health. Research has shown that women with the highest levels of CLA in their diet have a 60% lower risk of breast cancer than those with the lowest levels.[9] CLA has also been found to support the immune system and encourage muscle building while resisting weight gain.[10] Fat-phobia has led to a reduced intake of this valuable nutrient, since it is found only in foods such as whole milk, beef, lamb, and, of course, butter. Research confirms that naturally-raised grass-fed animals have as much as 500% more CLA in their milk than those fed conventional grain-based diets.[11]

Shorter Fatty Acids—A Good Energy Source

Researchers classify fatty acids (the building blocks of fats and oils) not only according to their degree of saturation (e.g. monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, or saturated), but also by their length. Butter is generously endowed with both short and medium chain fatty acids. As the name implies, these fatty acids are shorter in length than most of the fatty acids found in other fats and oils. Their length allows them to be directly absorbed from the intestines for quick energy.[12],[13] Longer chain fatty acids require enzymes and packaging that takes more energy and time to process through the body.[8] Furthermore, because butter is rich in nutrients and saturated fats, it offers a feeling of satisfaction, thus reducing cravings and binging. These short and medium chain fatty acids also contribute to the health of the immune system[14] and provide antimicrobial properties, such as protecting the gut from viruses, yeasts, and pathogenic bacteria.[14],[15]

Highly Absorbable Fat-Soluble Vitamins

The fat-soluble vitamins found in butter include true vitamin A, or retinol, along with vitamins D, K and E. It also possesses all the naturally-occurring cofactors needed to optimize absorption of these nutrients. In fact, vitamin A is more easily absorbed and utilized from butter than from any other food.[15] These nutrients play powerful roles in many body functions. For example, vitamins A and D are essential to the proper absorption of calcium, thus are necessary for strong bones and teeth. Vitamin A is particularly important for protein utilization.5 Coronary heart disease risk is lower among those who take in more vitamin E than those who take in less.[16] Butterfat also contains a number of trace minerals, including manganese, zinc, chromium and iodine.[15]

Butyric Acid for the Gut and Brain

The short-chain fatty acid butyric acid, or butyrate, is the primary fuel for the colonic walls, and supports the function and integrity of the gastrointestinal tract.[17]  This special fatty acid is also extensively used by the brain for the production of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is the brain’s natural calming agent that helps turn off stress reactions.[18] The only natural source of butyric acid is in cow milk-fat; butter and clarified butter (ghee), which is butter with the milk solids removed, offer high amounts of this beneficial short-chain fatty acid.

Heart Protection

“Wait, did you say heart protection?” That’s right: butter has properties that actually protect the health of the heart, unlike margarine and other fabricated fats that are the real heart disease culprits. Many studies have shown the danger of consuming margarine when it comes to heart health. A Medical Research Council survey showed that men eating butter ran half the risk of developing heart disease as those using margarine.[19] Another study in India, published in the 1976 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, compared two populations in India (northern and southern), where the notable difference in the diet was the type of fat consumed. Those in the north consumed meat and ghee as their main sources of fat. The southern population used margarine, did not eat meat, and had a heart disease rate 15 times greater than the northern group despite the fact they had lower cholesterol levels. [20] The researchers did a follow-up study 20 years later and reported similar statistics.[21] Clearly, replacing natural saturated fats with processed vegetable oils has proved to be a health disaster!

Cholesterol for Hormone and Brain Stability

Cholesterol is found in all body tissues and comprises an integral part of cell membranes. Despite its evil stigma, it is necessary for vitamin D and hormone production (such as estrogen, progesterone, and DHEA), brain function, immune system health, and eye development. Cholesterol is also needed for proper utilization of serotonin, the “feel-good” brain chemical, [22] which explains why low cholesterol levels have been linked to poor moods and aggressive behavior. The body tries to maintain a balance between the amount of cholesterol consumed and the amount manufactured but the liver. If little is taken in through food, the liver will produce more. This is why even drastic decreases in dietary cholesterol intake often produce only small drops in blood cholesterol.[23] Additionally, lecithin is a natural component of butter that assists in the proper assimilation and metabolism of cholesterol and other fat constituents.[15]

Stable Saturated Fat – the Wrongly Accused Nutrient

A main argument of butter opponents is the fact that this nourishing food contains saturated fat. This nutrient has been wrongfully labeled “dangerous.” The latest fat research clearly shows that the health concerns surrounding fats and oils comes from consuming damaged fats, such as hydrogenated oils or rancid fats that are generated with high temperatures. Fat damage is common with commercially- produced vegetable oils, due to the extraction process. Saturated fat plays important roles in the body. Besides supporting immune system function[24] and helping maintain cell integrity,[25] one of the most healthful attributes of saturated fat is its stability. This means it does not normally go rancid when heated during cooking[25],[26] and helps prevents other oils from going rancid in the body,[25] which is desirable because rancid oils breed free radicals—disease-causing unstable molecules in the body.[25],[27],[28]

Your Best Butter Choices

When perusing the dairy section, look for high-quality butter, preferably from cows raised naturally. These animals have been able to eat freely on a range of sweet, green grass to infuse the butter with an abundance of nutrients. They have not been given antibiotics or feed that contains pesticides or that was raised with artificial fertilizers. The flavor, texture, and appeal of this traditional fat can be changed by what cows are fed and even how the butter is churned. In the old days, milk was allowed to sit out and sour slightly before churning, giving it a flavor similar to yogurt and boosting its enzyme content.[29],[30] A number of manufacturers are starting to offer butter made with these time-honored traditions. For example, Organic Valley makes their Euro-style butter by inoculating the cream with a live culture. It is kept at about 80 degrees and allowed to sit out overnight and churned more slowly. This old-fashioned method brings out the natural sweetness and authentic taste. Another thing that makes the European butters unique is that most have 82% butter-fat, whereas ordinary butter has no more than 80%. Increasing the butter-fat by just 2.5% leads to a 10% reduction in moisture. The main advantage is that the reduced water content yields foods with a stronger butter flavor as well as a less watery texture, so piecrusts turn out a bit flakier and grains more delicate.[29]

What if you can’t do dairy? Butter and cream contain little lactose or casein, the two substances that cause dairy intolerance for some people. Because of the small amount in these foods, they may be well-tolerated in their natural state, even by those who are lactose intolerant. Those with extreme intolerance for milk protein (casein) can often take butter in the form of ghee, or clarified butter, from which the milk solids have been removed.[30] Ghee is made by heating butter until protein precipitates to the bottom, and the clear liquid (ghee) remaining at the top is skimmed off. Keep in mind, some people do have severe allergies to milk and cannot handle any dairy products.

You don’t have to be a butter-making rancher to enjoy the tasty, nourishing benefits of real butter. Your first choice should be the higher-fat, cultured, grass-fed, organic butters. Second best is organic and then regular. The prices vary, so go with what is affordable or use one for baking and save the richer, more flavorful varieties for special foods. Just be sure to avoid margarines, hydrogenated oils, or even the “trans-fat free” spreads. They are all processed imitations and do not offer any of butter’s health benefits—and most often do the exact opposite! With that said, for those who just cannot tolerate dairy of any kind, there are properly prepared natural spreads made with quality oils, such as olive and coconut, available in the dairy section.

News Flash on Butter and Asthma

A team from the Dutch National Institute of Public Health and the Environment analyzed the dietary intake of nearly 3,000 children, starting when their mothers were in their last trimester, three months following, and when the children were one, two, and three. They found that by the age of three, those who had consumed full-fat milk and butter on a daily basis were 63% less likely to have developed symptoms of asthma, compared to non-milk drinkers.[31] The researchers believe that various compounds in milk fat, such as the specific types of fatty acids, may help to protect against asthma. The lead researcher was quoted as saying, “It is now clear that there must be something in our modern western lifestyle that increases the risk of developing asthma.” You bet your boots, Dr. Wijga! Our reduction in quality saturated fats and an equivalent increase in easily-damaged vegetable oils found abundantly in processed foods are intimately linked with the development of asthma and other related conditions like eczema and hay fever.


[1] Price, Weston, DDS Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, 1945, Price Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, Inc., La Mesa, California.

[2] Kabara, J J, The Pharmacological Effects of Lipids, The American Oil Chemists’ Society, Champaign, IL, 1978, 1-14; Cohen, L A, et al, J Natl Cancer Inst ,1986, 77:43

[3] Enig, Mary G, PhD, Nutr Quarterly, 1993, 17:(4):79-95

[4] Enig, Mary G, PhD, Trans Fatty Acids in the Food Supply: A Comprehensive Report Covering 60 Years of Research, 2nd Edition, Enig Associates, Inc, Silver Spring, MD, 1995, 148-154; Enig, Mary G, PhD, et al, J Am Coll Nutr, 1990, 9:471-86

[5] Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. ProMotion Publishing. San Diego, CA. 1995.

[6] Enig, Mary Dr. Health Risks from Processed Foods and Trans Fats. Interview with Richard Passwater, Ph.D. Whole Foods Magazine. Found at www.healthy.net on Nov. 18th 2001.

[7] Enig, Mary G, PhD, Trans Fatty Acids in the Food Supply: A Comprehensive Report Covering 60 Years of Research, 2nd Edition, Enig Associates, Inc, Silver Spring, MD, 1995; Watkins, B A et al, Br Pouli Sci, Dec 1991, 32(5):1109-1119

[8] NAS Panel: Only Safe Intake of Trans Fat is Zero” Center for Science in the Public Interest, 7/10/02, cspinet.org

[9] Aro, A., S. Mannisto, I. Salminen, M. L. Ovaskainen, V. Kataja, and M. Uusitupa. “Inverse Association between Dietary and Serum Conjugated Linoleic Acid and Risk of Breast Cancer in Postmenopausal Women.” Nutr Cancer 38, no. 2 (2000): 151-7.

[10] Belury, M A, Nutr Rev, April 1995, 53:(4)83-89; Kelly, M L, et al, J Dairy Sci, Jun 1998, 81(6):1630-6

[11] Satter, Larry. USDA ARS US Dairy Forage Resarch Center. 1950 Linden Lane. University of Wisconsin, Madison WI Found at www.mercola.com on September 11, 2003

[12] Fife, Bruce, M.D. The Healing Miracles of Coconut Oil. Healthwise, Colorado Springs, CO. 2001

[13] Portillo, M P, et al, Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, Oct 1998, 22(10):947-9; Dulloo, A G, et al, Metabolism, Feb 1995, 44(2):273-9

[14] Kabara, J J, The Pharmacological Effects of Lipids, The American Oil Chemists’ Society, Champaign, IL, 1978, 1-14; Cohen, L A, et al, J Natl Cancer Inst ,1986, 77:43

[15] Enig, Mary PhD and Fallon, Sally. The Skinny on Fats. Found at www.westonaprice.org Published 1999. Found on January 5, 2004.

[16] Rimm EB, et al. Vitamin E consumption and the risk of coronary heart disease in men, N Engl J Med 1993;328:1450-6

[17] Levin, Buck, PhD. R.D. 1994. Intestinal Permeability and Nutritional Support for Intestinal Integrity. Quarterly Review of Natural Medicine.  Nutrition Research Review

[18] Ross, Julia, MA. The Mood Cure. Viking Publishing. 2002.

[19] Nutr Week, Mar 22, 1991, 21:12:2-3

[20] American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1967, 20:462-75

[21] Bihari S. Raheja of the Jaslok Hospital in Bombay. Lancet. Letter November 1987.

[22] H Engelberg, “Low Serum Cholesterol and Suicide,” Lancet, March 21, 1992, 339:727-728

[23] Enig, Mary, Ph.D. Know Your Fats. Bethesda Press, Silver Spring, MD. 2000

[24] Kabara, J J, The Pharmacological Effects of Lipids, The American Oil Chemists Society, Champaign, IL, 1978, 1-14; Cohen, L A, et al, J Natl Cancer Inst, 1986, 77:43

[25] Enig, Mary Ph.D. and Fallon, Sally. The Skinny on Fats. Found at www.westonaprice.org. Published 1999. Found on Dec. 18th 2001.

[26] Prior, I, et al, Am J of Clin Nutr, 1981, 34:1552

[27] Crayhon, Robert. M.S. C.N. Nutrition Made Simple. M. Evans and Company. New York. 1994

[28] Ross, Julia. M.A. The Diet Cure. Penguin Book. New York 2000.

[29] Lynn Ginsburg, Taylor, Mary. Euro Butter Whips Competition. The Natural Food Merchandiser. October 2003.

[30] Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. New Trends Publishing. 2001.

[31] Wijga AH, Smit HA, Kerkhof M, de Jongste JC, Gerritsen J, Neijens HJ, Boshuizen HC, Brunekreef B; PIAMA. Association of consumption of products containing milk fat with reduced asthma risk in pre-school children: the PIAMA birth cohort study. Thorax. 2003 Jul; 58(7): 567-72