Is butter bad for us?
Butter alternatives like margarine have been around for ages, and many gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s with a message to consumers that fat, including butter, was the enemy.
What is the healthiest butter?
Butter can fit into a healthy diet, registered dietitian Abbey Sharp says, and grass-fed butter is the healthiest butter money can buy.
Before getting into the health benefits of that type of butter, consider the fat content in butter in general. Butter is mostly saturated fat, with some monounsaturated fats.
While saturated fat has been demonized as unhealthy, studies have found no significant link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease.
Unsaturated fats, though, are highly regarded as the healthier option — heart-healthy and one way to increase high-density lipoprotein, the “good” cholesterol.
Butter also contains short-chain fatty acids like butyric acid that have benefits for gut health and potentially weight management, Sharp says. It has conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid believed to have anti-cancer and anti-obesity properties.
When butter comes from grass-fed cows, you get more of these benefits, Sharp says.
“Because the cows are fed grass, as opposed to corn, their feed itself has higher amounts of vitamin K2, and the grass actually has higher levels of short-chain fatty acids and omega-3s,” Sharp says.
Corn or grain feed typically have a higher percentage of omega-6s fats, she says.
Grocery-store butter aisles carry “light” butter marketed as healthier than regular butter, but Sharp says it’s not that simple. Light butter is just regular butter with air or water whipped into it to hold its shape.
“It’s lower in calories and fat only because it’s watered-down,” Sharp says. “It might work for spreading on your toast, for example. But, if you’re cooking with it, you’re just going to have to add more oil anyway.”
And while grass-fed butter is the healthiest choice, Sharp says the best way to incorporate butter and oil into your diet is to get a diverse, balanced array.
“All different fats and oils, including butter, olive oil, avocado oil … all have their own unique fatty acid profile, and each of those fatty acids has their own unique benefits,” Sharp says.
What about the image?
No, butter is not bad for you, though the makers of butter substitutes have promoted butter for decades as being unhealthy.
“This stems from a time when we were really taught to fear saturated fat and fat in general,” Sharp says. “This was during a time when margarine gained popularity because the messaging was all about saturated fat being so bad for your health.”
Saturated fat isn’t directly responsible for heart disease or mortality and can safely be consumed, according to a study published last year in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology.
“We know, of course, that replacing saturated fat with fiber-rich foods or polyunsaturated fats may be advantageous, but we don’t want to be replacing it with more highly processed carbohydrates that we were previously taught to do,” Sharp says.
If sodium intake is your concern, there’s unsalted butter.
“Salted butter was something that people bought as a convenience,” Sharp says. “Generally speaking, I think it’s better to buy unsalted products and then add sodium or add your seasoning afterward.”
Margarine vs. butter
Margarine is a lasting artifact of diet culture’s fear of fats, Sharp says. It’s not necessarily healthier for you even if you really “can’t believe it’s not butter.”
“When we created margarine, we created trans fats, so a lot of the original stick margarines contain trans fats,” Sharp says. “That said, most margarines today use a different technology to create unsaturated fats, so it’s not as big of a concern.”
Trans fats usually are found in the form of partially hydrogenated oil and are known to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
There’s nothing wrong with margarine that doesn’t contain partially hydrogenated oil, though it lacks certain beneficial fatty acids that butter has, like butyric and myristic acid. But margarine is lower in saturated fats than butter.
“If your doctor has told you . . . to reduce your reliance on saturated fat, margarine can be a great option,” Sharp says. “But it is high in omega-6s, which most people still do get a lot of.”
Omega-6 fatty acids are inflammatory when you consume them in an imbalanced ratio compared to omega-3 fatty acids. In the United States, our diet generally tends to be skewed toward more omega-6s, which are found in highly processed foods, Sharp says, so we don’t need to be consuming more omega-6s than we already do.
The same goes for plant-based or vegan buttery spreads, which are often made the same way as margarine — by combining water and oil. If you’re buying butter alternatives, look at the back of the package to check the type of oil it’s made with.
Plant-based butter made with avocado or olive oil is a healthier choice. But be aware that some companies promote “made with olive oil” spreads that contain a little olive oil and mostly canola, vegetable or safflower oil.
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