butter is a true superfood

stick of butter

As a survivor of a big, ol' unpleasant heart attack (with an unsuccessful angioplasty and subsequent CABG, followed by years of disability), one of my primary strategies to avoid a recurrence is to eat stupid amounts of butter. Luckily, butter is utterly delicious, so this is no hardship.

I have been babbling about butter as a superfood for some time, with a particular emphasis on pastured butter, so it startled me a tad when I began this post and found the research hard to find. The USDA database has an entry for ordinary butter, but nothing on the grass-fed stuff. It took a day in PubMed finding the original references to justify the advice I've been giving for years now as well as my own ridiculous butter consumption.

But before we get to discussing the benefits of the pastured stuff, let's just start with plain ordinary butter, which has many advantages in and of itself.

butter benefits

Butter is 98% fat, of which 63% is saturated fat, 26% is monounsaturated fat and only 4% the inflammatory polyunsaturated fatty acids. For a review of what these terms actually mean chemically, see my coconut oil post.

saturated fat

All naturally occurring monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are long-chain fatty acids, but saturated fats can be broken down into subcategories based on length: long-chain, medium-chain or short-chain.

  1. Approximately half the fat in butter consists of long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs).
  2. 8-9% are medium-chain; I discussed the benefits of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) in my coconut oil post:
         Paradoxically, while they can be used with little energy required, MCTs increase thermogenesis, thus there is a lot of interest in coconut oil for weight loss. MCTs increases both fat and weight loss in obese subjects while conserving lean mass; studies show multiple effects with even small doses of MCTs: increased resting metabolic rate, increased postprandial energy expenditure and enhanced satiety leading to reduced food intake.

    Studies show they reduce basal insulin, normalize glucose tolerance and diminish symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including raising HDL levels and shifting the LDL to the safer, smaller particle form. While not effecting fasting levels of either insulin or glucose in T2 diabetics, postprandial excursions in bG are blunted.

    Alzheimer's disease has been characterized as diabetes of the brain; insulin resistance prevents the brain from effectively utilizing glucose for fuel. MCTs can be utilized by the brain directly to produce energy, as well as the ketones produced by their hepatic metabolism, thus ameliorating symptoms of cognitive decline.

    There is also a good bit of evidence that MCTs are protective of gut health and reduce liver damage due to toxins.
  3. Approximately 3-4% of the total fat in butter is short chain fatty acids (SCFA). In the coconut oil post, I discussed both gut absorption and cellular absorption of MCTs:
        Because they are smaller than other saturated fats, MCTs diffuse from the GI tract without the need to produce bile salts, thus are good for those with malabsorption issues. MCTs do not require a carrier to enter the mitochondria and are rapidly oxidized to produce cellular energy (ATP). Thus MCTs are absorbed, used and stored without the need to expend much metabolic energy.

    Obviously, SCFAs being shorter are even more easily absorbed by both the gut and mitochondria than MCTs.

    The primary SCFA in butter is butyric acid, which makes up about 4% of the fat overall. Butyric acid was first isolated from butter, hence it's name. In fact, there are only three ways to get significant butyric acid into your body: butter and coconut oil top the list, but all full-fat dairy contains butyric acid and some is produced via fermentation of certain fibers by the anaerobic bacteria in your gut. There are many health benefits of butyric acid and butter is the only source of significant amounts of it.
health benefits of butyric acid
  • Butyric acid promotes gut health in several ways. First, it is the primary fuel used by the gut cells themselves. Second, butyric acid's presence rapidly closes intracellular gaps in the gut, reducing permeability (i.e "leaky" gut). These effects are powerful enough to have been used as treatments: 70% of those with Crohn's disease treated with oral butyric acid improved; enema application decreases stool frequency, colonic inflammation and discharge of blood in ulcerative colitis. See note below.
  • There is much evidence for butyric acid being anti-neoplastic, presumably due to an epigentic effect as a histone deacetylase inhibitor (i.e. it effects gene expression by changing how DNA folds and unfolds around histones).
  • The effect as a histone deacetylase inhibitor seems to inhibit several different neurodegenerative diseases in rodent models; all caveats regarding animal models of human disease apply.
  • Butyric acid is strongly anti-inflammatory systemically, not just in the gut. As such, I'd expect it to be both anti-diabetic and anti-atherogenic; anti-atherogenic activity in humans has been confirmed, thus it can be expected to reduce vascular diseases like heart attack and stroke.
  • In mice models, butyric acid protects against diabetes by reducing fasting serum insulin by half and increasing insulin sensitivity by 300%; butyric acid increased energy expenditure by raising temperature while simultaneously reducing caloric intake; butyric acid hugely increased the function of mouse mitochondria; butyric acid reduced serum triglycerides by half. This is a preliminary study and we don't yet know how much of it applies to humans.

NOTE: Most ingested butyric acid is absorbed in the small intestine thus does not reach the large intestine, let alone the colon. Butyric acid present lower in the gut is produced by the right microflora fermenting the right fibers. Personally, if I had a colonic disease, I would tend to assume the right bugs weren't doing their thing and seriously consider butter enemas as a treatment while trying to repopulate the appropriate buggers. I would only recommend organic butter as enemas are absorbed without any of the protection of the GI tract so you don't want to be sticking toxins up there.

monounsaturated fat

Butter contains more oleic acid than any other fatty acid; this being the fatty acid that makes olive oil and avocado so healthy, which I will discuss in much more detail when I write about those oils.

polyunsaturated fat

Ordinary grocery store butter's omega6:omega3 ratio is almost 7, which is not the best, but not bad. To understand the scale, various authorities recommend this ratio be between 1 and 5 for optimal health; the typical SAD diet runs around 15-20.

other macronutrients

Butter contains 0.06% carbohydrate, primarily lactose. This amount is so tiny that most lactose-intolerant people can handle butter.

Butter also contains 0.85% protein, much of which is casein. People with casein intolerance may have a temporary intolerance or a true allergic reaction. In either case, ghee would be a better choice since the milk solids are removed versus butter.


Of the fat-soluble vitamins, a tablespoon of grocery butter has approximately 5-10% of the RDA of true vitamin A (as well as significant carotene content), just under 2% of the RDA of vitamin D and a whopping 50% of the RDA of vitamin E.

Butter has very little of the B-complex vitamins and virtually no vitamin C, which is not surprising since these are water-soluble vitamins.

Likewise, butter has insignificant amounts of minerals.

better butter

All the preceding data is for conventional butter, which is not bad stuff, with one caveat. Toxins present as herbicides and pesticides can be soluble in either water or fat; water soluble toxins would primarily be excreted in the animal's urine, but animal fat stores and concentrates fat-soluble toxins.

When discussing meat and poultry, I usually recommend buying the leanest conventional meats possible and cooking in or dressing with butter, coconut oil or olive oil to minimize toxins; conversely, I recommend buying the fattiest grass-fed products available to maximize nutrition.

But butter is almost entirely fat, so I would not personally feel comfortable buying it conventionally if I could avoid it. An organic butter would minimize toxin exposure, but better still is a butter made from cows who live on pasture and are primarily grass-fed.

In fact, if I could buy only ONE non-conventional product, I'd give up all grass-fed meats, poultry and eggs and all organic fruits and vegetables before I gave up a really quality butter, not just for avoiding toxin exposure, but for the additional nutritional benefits:

  • Considering the long-chain saturated fatty acids, grass-fed beef has less myristic acid and palmitic acid, which are the ones associated with raising serum cholesterol, and more stearic acid, the only long-chain saturated fatty acid with no impact on serum cholesterol levels.
  • While grain-fed beef has higher levels of monounsaturated fat (mostly oleic acid), grass-fed has higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a particular class of fatty acids who's consumption has been shown to reduce carcinogenesis, reduce atherosclerosis, prevent onset of diabetes and reduce adipose tissue.
  • Omega 6 content does not vary much, but omega 3 fatty acid content is much higher in pastured animal fat, resulting in a ratio in the 1 to 4 range over various studies.
  • The vitamin A content in pastured animal fat is about twice grain-fed; the carotenoid content is 7 times as high.
  • Most importantly, the vitamin K2 content (MK-4 version) can vary 50-fold from the worst fed to the best fed animals (on pasture when the grass is growing fastest). Few foods have significant vitamin K2 content, so this is very important for human health.
    • Vitamin K2 activates the proteins that vitamins A and D "tell" the cells to make, thus greatly increasing their effectiveness. This has huge implications for calcium metabolism, removing it from the body where it is the "hard" in hardening of the arteries as well as the culprit in spurs, and moving it to the bones and teeth, thus preventing dental decay and osteoporosis (these three are biochemically linked: cardiovascular health, bone health and dental health). Dietary intake of vitamin directly correlates with heart disease; IMO, not making sure you have a high dietary intake of vitamin K2 if you are diabetic or otherwise have a high risk of heart disease is extremely foolish.
    • Vitamin K2 accumulates in the brain with some evidence that a lack contributes to such diverse effects as fatigue, learning disabilities and seizures; K2 is needed for production of the myelin sheath, thus a deficiency may be a contributing factor in demyelinating diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
    • High dose K2 has been used to improve results on glucose tolerance tests, but it appears to do so by stimulating the pancreas rather than by the preferable method of improving insulin sensitivity. So it's better news for T1 diabetics in the honeymoon phase than T2s like myself.

While I do think getting organic, grass-fed butter is important; I think the question of raw butter or cultured butter is much less so. The nutrients we eat butter for are heat-stable, so pasteurization won't hurt them much. And there is so little lactose in butter that culturing it will not result in much probiotic content; it's primarily a taste issue, depending on which you prefer.

practical matters

sourcing quality butter

The best way to get real pastured, organic butter is from a local farm or dairy. The ingredients should be just cream, or cream and salt. If you buy locally, you will be able to see when the butter gets darker and stock up. It is primarily carotenes that make it dark, which is a marker for increased vitamin A and K2 content. Obviously, this color change is useless once butter has additional additives. Much supermarket butter has dyes added, and even a nice natural dye like annatto masks the true nutritional content of the butter.

Sources to locate local butter include Local Harvest, Eat Wild or your local chapter of WAPF. It may seem an annoyance to have to do research to find the best way to buy butter, but in my opinion, for this true superfood, it's worthwhile to spend the time.

If you are located in central PA, I can save you some time, we buy organic, pastured butter from our local dairy, Trickling Springs and it is actually delivered to us via our milkman. We get a pound a week, and I eat more of it than hubby does (he drinks more raw milk, so it all balances out nutritionally).

If you absolutely cannot find a local source, it's best to buy international butter from a country that simply doesn't have the habit of feeding crap to their cattle. Anchor butter from New Zealand is a good choice as their climate is such that their cattle are pastured year-round (this does not apply in the UK, where the Anchor brand has been sold and is now selling British butter). Kerrygold from Ireland is a decent choice since their economy is such that pasture is the cheapest feed for cattle (it helps not having a government that chooses to subsidize corn and make it so cheap.) These butters are often carried by local groceries, even if they don't have much of a health food emphasis as they're considered gourmet items. As such you might have to look around a bit, as they might be with the expensive cheese rather than with the ordinary butter.

If you can't find locally produced butter and can't find a good brand at your grocery, you can order from my Amazon links to the right and I'll make a small commission. Thanks!

using butter

Raw use is no problem, just slather it on all your cooked veggies. Adding butter greatly increases the yumminess of vegetables, thus can increase consumption. And fat improves the absorption of plant micronutrients, so it's a win-win however you look at it.

Obviously, butter is most traditionally used on breads, crackers and pasta. If you eat grains, slather them with butter too. It's also really nice to finish a steak or burger with a pat of butter, or stirring it into a reduction sauce at the end of cooking just to add some lusciousness.

As far as cooking, I am going to surprise you here: butter's smoke point is 302°F. If you cook at all, you know you can't heat butter that high without it burning; this is because while the oil will not smoke until that temperature, the milk solids will burn well before then. Traditionally, cooks using butter for high-heat cooking were advised to add an equal quantity of olive oil; in this type of application, I use coconut oil instead. But for low heat cooking, like eggs (which I always cook on medium-low so they stay tender), butter is fine by itself.

To actually take advantage of butter's high smoke point, you need to use ghee, which is butter with the milk solids removed. This can be bought, but again you want an organic, grass-fed ghee. It can also be made very easily from your good butter in about 15 minutes. When figuring which is your more frugal choice, keep in mind that you get about 3/4 cup of ghee from a cup of butter. Here's a tutorial on making ghee from nom nom paleo if you want to try it yourself.

Ghee is also much more shelf-stable than butter. I don't personally consider this important as I keep butter refrigerated or frozen except for the pound we're currently noshing on, which is on the kitchen table. I've never had butter go bad as a pound just doesn't last that long around here.

However, if you have a lot of butter to deal with and limited refrigerator and freezer space, ghee will keep on a shelf for a long time.

There is much more information comparing the nutrition and usage of butter vs. ghee at this excellent article via Nutrition Advance.

Disclosure: Affiliate

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