Butter…Friend or Foe?

A recent debate amongst friends incited me to write on butter.  I could come out and simply say that the demonization of butter is just wrong, but I believe it’s first important to identify where butter comes from.  Often times, examining the source of a certain food item provides enough information to make an educated nutritional decision.  But you’re probably thinking…yah, I know where butter comes from.  Well, just to make sure you’re not confusing butter with that fake stuff found in the refrigerated section in most grocery stores, let’s examine butter in greater depth.

The origins of butter go back thousands of years to when our ancestors first started domesticating animals. In fact, the first written reference to butter was found on a 4500- year old limestone tablet illustrating how butter was made. In India, ghee (clarified butter) has been used as a staple food, and as a symbol of purity, worthy of offering to the gods in religious ceremonies for more than 3000 years. The Bible has references to butter as the product of milk from the cow, and of Abraham setting butter and milk from a calf before three angels who appeared to him on the plains of Mamre. For millennia, people around the globe have prized butter for its health benefits. So, how did butter become a villain in the quest for good health?

Although it’s difficult to believe given the world we live in today, at the turn of the century, heart disease in America was rare.  Sixty years later, it was our number one killer. Yet during the same time period, butter consumption decreased – from eighteen to four pounds per person, per year. A researcher named Ancel Keys was the first to propose that saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet were direct contributors to coronary heart disease (CAD). Numerous subsequent studies costing hundreds of millions of dollars, have failed to conclusively back up this claim. Yet the notion that a healthy diet is one with minimal fat, particularly saturated fat, persisted. While Americans drastically reduced their intake of natural animal fats like butter, the processed food industry, particularly the low-fat food industry, proliferated.

When the baby boomers were children, concerned mothers began to replace butter with margarine. The margarine manufacturers told them it was the healthier alternative and all well-intended moms were hooked. In those days no one asked, “where is the science to prove it? I want to know before I give this man-made, plasticized stuff to my children. After all we humans have been eating butter for thousands of years?” As a result, since the early 1970’s, the average American intake of butter has dropped considerably, while rates of obesity, diabetes, and consequently, heart disease, have literally surged. 

The reduction in consumption of healthy dietary fat sources has contributed to a serious decline in overall health, and those that speak out against the anti-fat establishment are still largely ignored. Moreover, those that speak out against the processed food establishment (i.e. margarine) are not only ignored, but are further locked in battle with  powerful lobbyists and government agencies. Unfortunately, there are still many folks within the allopathic medical community still loudly proclaiming the benefits of margarine. See this brief article as a shining example!

So, what is margarine then? Margarine is a processed food, created chemically from refined polyunsaturated oils. The process used to turn these oils into a spreadable form, which are normally in liquid form at room temperature, is called hydrogenation.

In a nutshell, the hydrogenation process begins by heating liquid vegetable oils to extremely high temperatures.  This step in the process alone is severely detrimental as high temperatures actually change the DNA of the oil causing it to turn toxic. After that, a nickel catalyst is added, along with hydrogen atoms, to begin the solidification process. Nickel is a toxic heavy metal whereas trace levels always remain in the finished product. Finally, deodorants are added to remove margarine’s horrible smell (from the rancid oils) and bright yellow/orange coloring is added to an otherwise very unappetizing gray.  That’s right…prior to adding in the coloring, the finished product is gray…please tell me, do you eat “gray”? As if gray isn’t enough, in the solidification process, harmful trans-fatty acids are created which are carcinogenic and mutagenic. What would you rather have: a real food with an abundance of healthful qualities or a stick of carcinogenic, bleached, and deodorized slop? And just as the scientific evidence lacks in terms of proving that butter consumption directly leads to heart disease, there are scientific studies abound which show how trans fat consumption increases bad cholesterol levels, interferes with hormonal balance and even impacts brain function!

As I’ve stated many times over in this blog, incorporating healthy fats into your diet is not only a good thing, but necessary to achieve optimal health. Good fats such as coconut oil, avocado, nuts, healthy olive oil, etc., supply your body with essential fatty acids for longevity, hormone balance, heart health, sharp vision, glowing moist skin and energy. So, what about butter then? Check out this list and you tell me!

  1. Butter is rich in the most easily absorbable form of Vitamin A necessary for thyroid and adrenal health.
  2. Contains lauric acid, important in treating fungal infections and candida.
  3. Contains lecithin, essential for cholesterol metabolism.
  4. Contains anti-oxidants that protect against free radical damage.
  5. Has antioxidants that protect against weakening arteries.
  6. Is a great source of Vitamins E and K.
  7. Is a very rich source of the vital mineral selenium.
  8. Saturated fats in butter have strong anti-tumor and anti-cancer properties.
  9. Butter contains conjugated linoleic acid, which is a potent anti-cancer agent, muscle builder, and immunity booster.
  10. Is a source of highly absorbable iodine.
  11. Contains Arachidonic Acid (AA) which plays a role in brain function and is a vital component of cell membranes.
  12. Protects against gastrointestinal infections in the very young or the elderly.

So, now that you are going to eat butter, what kind of butter should you chose?

The best butter you can eat is raw, organic butter because pasteurization destroys nutrients. Unfortunately, the sale of raw butter is prohibited in many states across the country, so if you cannot find raw, next best choice is organic.

How do you cook with butter?

When butter is used as a cooking medium, such as for sautéing vegetables, it complements and enhances the flavors to the food that is being cooked in it. It also adds complexity to the flavor of sauces. Keep in mind, however, that butter, like most natural fats, can burn easily. In fact, the only drawback in cooking with butter is that it has the lowest smoke points (the temperature at which a fat starts to smoke when heated) of any form of fat. For this reason, when sautéing (which is a form of cooking that uses very high temperatures) 400°F or hotter, a combination of butter and some other oil, such as olive oil or coconut oil, is suggested.
Another technique for achieving high-temperature cooking with butter is to use clarified butter. Clarified butter is the pure, golden butterfat from which the milk solids and water have been removed. Because it is the milk solids that burn the fastest, pure butterfat can tolerate much hotter temperatures before reaching its smoke point. Clarified butter is also preferred for sauce making, such as when making a roux. The reason for this is that the water in ordinary butter can cause a sauce to separate.
For many of us, using butter will take a little work.  We’ve been programmed, some of us our entire lifetime, into thinking that butter is bad.  To further, we’ve been convinced to think all saturated fats are bad and again, it’s simply a fallacy.  For those of you who are looking for a vegan option, check out organic coconut oil, which is a healthy oil I use often when cooking. Put aside the low-fat paradigm and embrace cooking and eating which uses whole, fresh foods and ban the plastic, chemically-laden toxic stuff forever!

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