It’s Back but is Butter Healthy or Not?


Is butter healthy or not?

It’s a question which many have pondered and it’s one of those issues that completely splits both public and professional opinion. Some are strong proponents of the nutritional benefits butter can provide, yet many critics strongly maintain that butter is inherently bad for our heart and can contribute to future cardiac problems.

Every week I read some newspaper story or blog post that takes one of two stances:

1. Butter is a super-food which we should gobble down in unlimited portions.

2. Butter contains “unhealthy saturated fats” so we shouldn’t eat it.

As with most things in the nutrition world, perhaps the answer isn’t so black and white.

Let’s take a look…

Butter in the News

June 23 2014 was a pivotal date for the fortunes of butter. Do you remember why? If not then let me refresh your memory: it’s the date when Time Magazine published their now infamous cover which brazenly screamed “Eat Butter.”

This of course was followed by a caption explaining that although scientists had labelled fat the enemy, they had been wrong. What followed was a media avalanche of coverage, thousands of bloggers posting stories about the truth finally being exposed and general bewilderment in the mainstream public.

Perhaps you believe that butter is a perfectly safe and nourishing food, or you could be one of the critics who feel frustrated by butter’s surging renaissance. Maybe you are one of the many who don’t know what to think.

The issue remains controversial: is butter healthy or unhealthy?

A Brief History of Butter

Butter has been an incredibly popular food over the past several centuries. It was a prominent staple in US households at the turn of the 20th century and even going back to ancient times, in the 16th century English sailors used to eagerly await their daily ration of butter – which they believed was extremely important for their health!

In 1911 the average American consumed almost 19 pounds of butter per year. (1)

Almost a century later in 2010 this figure had drastically fallen to a measly 5 pounds.

To put this into perspective, the average daily consumption of butter was:

1911 – 23.6g per person

2010 – 6.2g

A significant decline for sure but what happened to cause this?

Actually it’s quite simple – just like Time magazine said, scientists labelled fat the enemy.

In brief, the rates of heart disease were dramatically increasing and the blame was pointed squarely at saturated fat. As butter contains approximately 50% saturated fat by weight this was devastating for public confidence. (2)

There was a new ‘super-food’ health superstar at that time too and you may have even heard of it – margarine. It may sound funny now, but that’s exactly what margarine was – a poster child for a new healthier way of eating.

Margarine was quickly rising in popularity and it wasn’t long before it became the dominant so-called ‘healthy butter’ in the market, finally surpassing real butter in 1957. (3)

As a child I remember being confused about why I had to eat margarine. My parents always kept up to date with the latest nutrition news and I’d always had a generous amount of butter covering my vegetables to aid absorption of the fat soluble vitamins.

Then one day my creamy butter that tasted delicious was suddenly gone and replaced by some imitator that was greasy, tasted terrible and left a nasty chemical after-taste.

For the first time, I began moaning about eating my vegetables! My parents explained that the new, ahem, ‘butter’ was made from vegetables and as it was ‘heart-healthy’, I’d be a healthier boy for eating it.

I don’t blame them of course. Despite margarine being a trans-fat laden disaster, the predominant view of the time was that people who wanted to eat a healthy diet chose margarine. (4)

Fortunately the public now know just how dangerous trans-fats can be and they have been removed from the majority of commercial margarine spreads.

I still recommend avoiding margarine though, as it usually contains a blend of unhealthy oils and weird additives.

Butter Becomes Healthy Again

Fast forward to 2015 and butter has overtaken margarine to become the public’s darling once more.

With obesity and devastating chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes rampaging through western society the public has developed a distaste for heavily refined foods and cast a wary eye over them.

Furthermore, several recent studies have shown that:

  • Saturated fat has no impact on cardiac events. (5)
  • High amounts of saturated fat intake do not contribute to plasma SFA (saturated fatty acids) in the context of a low carbohydrate diet(6)
  • Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats. (7)
  • Evidence does not support the notion that high-fat dairy foods contribute to obesity or cardio-metabolic risk and that high-fat dairy consumption within typical dietary patterns is inversely associated with obesity risk. (8)

In other words: saturated fat and thus butter appear to be completely healthy and, perhaps, even beneficial.

However, please note the points I highlighted in bold.

Despite the recent positive research though, many remain unconvinced on the health merits of butter.

Critics Still Label Butter Unhealthy

“Butter was never back.”

(Joel Kahn, MD)

In a recent article entitled ‘The Outrageous Hype Behind Butter is Back‘, famed heart attack prevention doctor Joel Kahn hit back at butter.

Discussing his dissatisfaction with the media’s spin on saturated fats being good for us, he summed up his position by emphatically stating, “According to these studies, butter was never back.”

It’s a view shared by many.

Observing the aftermath of the 2014 meta-analysis that absolved saturated fat of being a culprit in heart disease, a nutrition leader from Harvard University vented his frustration.

“They have done a huge amount of damage. I think a retraction with a similar press promotion should be considered” 

(Walter Willet, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health)

Decades of medical training and nutrition lectures have intrinsically linked saturated fat to heart disease so this controversy is not really a surprise.

But are these views warranted?

Should we eat butter or is it unhealthy?

As with any contentious issue, the best way to make our own conclusion is to examine the science.

Let’s take a look at the evidence.

What are the Health Benefits of Butter?

As previously covered, the 20th century was not kind to butter as a result of the aggressive war on saturated fats.

Despite this, butter actually has quite a healthy nutrient profile.

Here are a few of the benefits butter can bring to your diet.

Butter is High in Saturated Fat

Butter is a rich source of saturated fats and contains approximately 50g saturated fat per 100g. (2)

Although saturated fat has been demonized in the past, it is actually essential for our body and has a number of health benefits:

  • Essential for the manufacturing of cholesterol and important hormones.
  • It’s responsible for the proper functioning of the brain (note: most fats in the brain are saturated.)
  • Saturated fats found in butter such as myristic acid play an important role in immune system regulation.
  • Saturated fat has liver-protective properties and has even been shown to reduce alcohol-induced oxidative stress. (9)
  • Saturated fat has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol level, which is linked to lower cardiac risk factors. (10)

Butter is rich in Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)

CLA is a little-known fatty acid which is predominantly found in animal products such as red meat, butter and eggs. It can be found in much higher concentrations in grass-fed animal products. (11)

Although CLA is actually a trans-fat, it is naturally occuring and does not negatively impact our health the way industrially produced trans-fats do.

It has a number of beneficial health effects:

  • CLA has been shown to suppress the development of cancerous tumors. (12)
  • Preliminary studies show that CLA improves insulin sensitivity. (13)
  • Clinical trials suggest CLA plays a role in reducing fat gain, enhancing immunity and even fighting inflammation. (14)
  • Clinical evidence presents CLA as having anti-atherogenic properties. To put it simply: the results showed that higher levels of CLA are associated with a reduced risk of heart attack. (15)

Butter Contains Fat Soluble Vitamins 

Butter is a good source of the following vitamins:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K2

Maybe you haven’t heard of vitamin K2. If you haven’t, then you really need to know about it because it’s very important.

It tends to be somewhat hidden outside of nutrition circles, but it truly is essential for your health.

You may know that vitamin D plays a role in improving skeletal development and bone density. It does this by increasing the body’s absorption of calcium. However, vitamin D does not control where that calcium goes once inside the body.

Now calcium can be good (strengthening your bones), or it can be very bad. Calcium deposits in the arteries for example greatly contribute to atherosclerosis (otherwise known as arterial plaque – aka heart disease.)

So, how does vitamin K2 come in? In the presence of adequate calcium and vitamin D, a starring role is played by K2.

Benefits of Vitamin K2

Vitamin K2 actually prevents calcium from being deposited in the arteries and sends it to the skeletal system, where the body uses it to help repair existing tissue and form new bone material.

A scary fact is that many people are deficient in vitamin K2 these days. Some of these people even take huge daily supplementary doses of vitamin D. It’s definitely something which warrants further investigation if you are one of these people. It’s critical that an imbalance of vitamin D and K2 is addressed when present.

The Japanese are known for being one of the longest-lived people in the world today. Furthermore they have minimal rates of heart disease compared to the US. (16)

It has been speculated that their love for Natto, a fermented soy dish high in vitamin K2, may be one of the main reasons why they enjoy enviable cardiovascular health.

Butter sounds impressive so far doesn’t it?

Before we reach a conclusion though, let’s look at some of the criticisms which have been aimed at butter.

What are the Health Dangers of Butter?

There are a number of concerns which health professionals have raised about butter, all of which revolve around the high saturated fat content.

Butter is High in Saturated Fat and Raises Cholesterol

Many people talk about saturated fat raising cholesterol as being inherently bad, but you need to understand the science a little more. ‘High’ or ‘low’ cholesterol is a pretty insignificant measurement.

Let’s briefly take a look at cholesterol.

What are HDL and LDL Cholesterol?

You may have heard of HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Contrary to popular belief they are not actually cholesterol. They are proteins which are manufactured by our body to transport nutrients (including fats and cholesterol) around the body.

Think of LDL like a boat going down the river, delivering essential packages along the way.

Cholesterol is essential for cellular signaling, hormone production and a host of other essential biological processes in the body. Our cells receive cholesterol delivered to them by LDL and so an adequate amount (of LDL) is utterly critical for a healthy body.

Without it, we would die.

On the other hand, HDL has the role of removing cholesterol from organs and delivering it to the liver where it can be expelled from the body.

Although LDL cholesterol is perfectly healthy, problems can occur when we have too much LDL compared to HDL.

There are many alternate theories on the development of heart disease, but one is that when we have an imbalanced ratio of LDL and HDL, cholesterol can stay in our body for too long and become oxidized.

LDL may not be a problem, but oxidized LDL (Ox-LDL) certainly is. Oxidized cholesterol is believed to play a key role in the development of heart disease. (17)

This is why a multitude of studies show high levels of plasma HDL directly translate to a reduced cardiovascular risk. (18)

It should also be noted that saturated fat is much more stable than polyunsaturated fat. Therefore if LDL particles are carrying predominantly saturated fats, it follows that there should be a lower risk of oxidation occurring.

Does Saturated Fat Raise Cholesterol?

Did you know that the liver produces cholesterol every day? It does this because cholesterol is an essential nutrient for human health.

How much cholesterol the liver makes directly correlates to our intake of dietary cholesterol. Eat less cholesterol and the liver will make more. Eat more cholesterol and the liver will make less.

For the majority of people, a typical dietary intake of saturated fat and cholesterol will have little impact on plasma cholesterol. However some data has linked saturated fat to increased cholesterol levels.

A 2009 systematic review showed that although increased intake of saturated fat can raise total cholesterol, it boosts both LDL and HDL. (19)

I know “high cholesterol” sounds scary, but the fact is that for most people reasonable amounts of dietary saturated fat won’t have much of an effect on cholesterol. Additionally, the ratio of LDL to HDL is much more important than total cholesterol.

In addition, a meta-analysis involving over 347,000 participants concluded that no significant evidence exists linking dietary saturated fat to cardiovascular heart disease. (20)

Small and Dense LDL 

Another important consideration is that LDL has many different sub-types which all have different particle sizes. The small dense variants are more strongly linked to heart disease than the bigger soft and fluffy variants.

Interestingly it is a diet high in carbohydrate which results in higher concentrations of smaller LDL particles and saturated fat that is associated with a larger, less damaging variant. (21)

Can Butter Raise LDL-P and Apolipoprotein-B?

We already covered LDL cholesterol.

If you ever take a lab test, the total amount of cholesterol found inside LDL particles will be listed as LDL-C.

Then What is LDL-P?

LDL-P is the total amount of LDL particles. LDL-C is the total amount of cholesterol which is contained within those particles.

LDL-P (particle number) is believed to have a much stronger link to cardiovascular risk than LDL-C (total LDL cholesterol.) (22)

What is Apolipoprotein-B?

Put simply, Apolipoprotein-B (Apo-B) is a protein which can be found inside LDL particles. High amounts of LDL-P will therefore correlate to a higher count of Apo-B.

Apo-B proteins are believed to play a central role in atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) due to their likelihood of entering arterial walls and directing cholesterol there. (23)

Even if someone has low LDL-C they may still have high levels of LDL-P and Apo-B and a resulting higher cardiovascular risk. (24, 25)

This is why ‘high cholesterol’ by itself tells us nothing.

Likewise, if someone has high amounts of LDL-C, they may also have very low measurements of LDL-P and Apo-B

Butter’s Impact on LDL-P and Apo-B

There are not a lot of studies which relate specifically to butter, but one older study involving 38 free-living male participants suggested that excess butter can raise both LDL-P and Apo-B, in addition to increasing LDL-C. (26)

The study involved the participants consuming 50% of daily fat calories in the form of butter (almost 20% of total daily energy intake.)  It should be noted that this is a huge amount of butter – and this much is not typically consumed by the average person.

An average LDL-C increase of 5% was seen across all participants. Although this is far from being a dramatic increase, it is enough to be statistically significant.

I struggled to find further studies relating directly to butter, but some people who have ordered their own lab tests found that large dietary doses of butter significantly increased their circulating Apo-B levels.

I’ve noticed several people experiencing similar and several doctors have mentioned seeing this in their patients.

Is Butter Healthy or Not?

Butter tastes delicious, increases absorption of fat soluble vitamins and has a few impressive nutrients in its own right.

Additionally, as the bulk of studies have shown, in healthy individuals butter has very little impact on plasma cholesterol levels when consumed in a reasonable amount.

Is butter essential?

Not at all. Earlier in the article I mentioned vitamin K2 as one of the star performers in butter, but this super-vitamin can be obtained in much greater amounts from fermented soy products like natto and miso.

Likewise, the other vitamins in butter can be obtained from other sources in much greater concentrations per calorie. Fermented dairy such as yoghurt and cheese is also much more nutrient dense than butter.

Is it healthy to put several tablespoons of butter in my coffee and add it to all my food?

As individuals we are all biologically unique and what is healthy for one person might be completely the opposite for another, so it is difficult to provide an accurate answer.

It might be perfectly healthy but it might not. It’s not something that I would personally encourage. There are no long-term studies that I am aware of which have looked into consuming extensive amounts of butter in this way.

Eating approximately 20% of calories from butter has been shown to increase circulating LDL-P and Apo-B levels. These readings are strongly linked to heart disease.

Additionally, if you are consuming huge amounts of saturated fat from butter alone – then your total saturated fat intake may be a lot higher once you consider other foods such as red meat, eggs, coconut and other dairy products.

Now please don’t get me wrong – saturated fat is a perfectly healthy nutrient as all the latest scientific research has shown.

The conclusions however were that saturated fat is healthy within typical dietary patterns.

Study conclusions noted that dietary guidelines to replace saturated fats with carbohydrates were misplaced. The studies did not suggest that we should put huge amounts of added saturated fat into everything we eat or drink though.

There is no evolutionary precedent of consuming such huge amounts of saturated fat and personally, I have no desire to be a guinea pig.

Final thoughts

Butter is neither an essential health food nor is it a dangerous food.

I enjoy butter but I think it is sensible to consume it in reasonable amounts.

If you eat it in reasonable amounts, then great – no problem. I think that is perfectly healthy. It’s tasty, makes any food you put it in taste better and gives you some beneficial nutrients as a bonus.

If you regularly consume huge amounts of butter, then it may also be fine – but please get some tests done and check with your health practitioner just to make sure.

You can never be too careful when it comes to your health.


Do you have any queries or thoughts you’d like to add? If so, please leave a comment below! 

About the Author

Michael Joseph (@nutradvance) is a nutritionist with a strong enthusiasm for healthy living through real food and lifestyle. He loves discussing nutrition with like-minded people and such connections are welcomed.

Michael Joseph