by Dr. Will Cole
Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey, who popularized putting butter in coffee, is well known for touting butter as a health food. What? Is this a joke? We’ve all heard that saturated fat is bad, so how can butter be good? “If you are living a life with no butter,” Asprey said, “you are not going to like how your body makes hormones. You need saturated fat.” This is, contrary to what we’ve been told over the years by nutrition experts, so what gives? Let’s cut through the propaganda and look at the facts, to settle the butter debate once and for all.
Welcome to the butter battle.
For decades, saturated fat and cholesterol have been demonized for clogging arteries, causing heart attacks, and being mostly responsible for weight gain. Since the latter part of the 20th century, the standard medical advice has been to avoid saturated fat, birthing the low-fat-everything industry – low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, cookies, even margarine. But the latest research says something much different – butter may actually cause more good than harm.
The Benefits of Butter
Butter is a great source of crucial trace nutrients such as chromium, copper, iodine, manganese, and zinc.
Butter is one of the best sources of bioavailable fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2, which are severely lacking in the modern Western diet. We need fat-soluble vitamins to support hundreds of different pathways that determine immune, brain, and hormone health. All of these nutrients are found in their most usable forms in animal fats such as butter.
For example, real vitamin A (also called retinol), is found only in animal products like fish, shellfish, liver, and our old friend butter. Retinol is much more absorbable than the vitamin-A precursor, beta-carotene, that comes from plant foods, because the body must convert beta-carotene before it can be used. One study found that just 3 percent of beta-carotene gets converted in a healthy adult.
As babies we were all born relying on fat in the form of breast milk for brain development and energy. For our brain to work properly, it requires a lot of energy. And from a biological and evolutionary perspective, the most sustainable form of energy for optimal brain health is good fats. Butter contains arachidonic and docosahexaenoic acids, which are only found in bioavailable amounts in animal fats. In addition, butter provides ample amounts of short – and medium- chain fatty acids and other omega fats, which support a healthy immune system and metabolism. Another butter fat called glycosphingolipids protect against gut problems, and when butter comes from cows eating grass, it also contains high levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthy fat that fights against cancer, diabetes, and weight gain.
The Cholesterol Conundrum
It is true that a diet high in saturated fat tends to raise cholesterol, but what scientists are now questioning is how bad high cholesterol actually is. One study found that there might be no association between high total cholesterol and stroke risk. Other research has shown that low cholesterol may actually increase the likelihood of death. A growing number of studies have found similar results: Lowering dietary saturated fat and cholesterol did not decrease heart attacks.
It makes sense that cholesterol isn’t so bad. Your brain is the fattiest organ in your body, composed of 60 percent fat, and as much as 25 percent of the body’s cholesterol is located in the brain. Moreover, we need cholesterol to make healthy hormones and support nerve growth and a healthy immune system. It should be no surprise that some of the many side effects of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs include memory loss, nerve pain, hormonal problems, low sex drive, and erectile dysfunction – the very functions cholesterol supports.
All this suggests that consuming cholesterol and healthy fat could be critical to the health and function of the brain and hormones, not their destruction.
Not so fast – butter has a few problems, too.
Functional medicine is centered around customizing health care and food medicines to the individual. Even with healthy, real food, not everything works for everyone. Here are the three most common issues I find when someone doesn’t tolerate butter:
Casein, the protein found in dairy, can be an inflammation trigger for people with gut problems such as leaky gut syndrome, IBS, and autoimmune conditions. Butter has small amounts of casein, so people with mild casein sensitivity may be able to tolerate butter in moderation, but for others, even a little bit of butter can cause a flare-up. Beta-casein, the main type, has two subtypes: A1 and A2. In the regular milk you find in the grocery store, the A1 subtype is more common because most cows in the United States have casein gene mutations that happened over the thousands of years of crossbreeding different kinds of cows. Beta A2 casein is the OG, ancient casein. Beta A1 casein is one reason people can be intolerant to dairy, with studies pointing to A1 as a trigger for digestive problems and inflammation. A2, on the other hand, has been shown to be more digestible and richer in vitamins. I run comprehensive food immune reactivity and gut health labs to find out whether my patients can truly tolerate dairies like butter, and if so, which kind.
2. Grain-fed conventional butter:
Cows on most major dairy farms today are given hormones and antibiotics, live in unhealthy conditions, and are fed corn instead of grass, even though grass is their natural food. Their milk is then pasteurized and homogenized and the fat is removed. To make up for nutrient loss, synthetic vitamins are then injected into the milk, trying to stimulate what nature had already included in the whole-food form. Another common issue I find in people who don’t tolerate butter is a reaction to either the corn the cow was fed or the higher levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats in regular grain-fed butter. Some people are fine with organic, grass-fed butter but flare-up with the regular conventionally-produced butter.
3. Combining butter with sugar:
Sugar and grain mixed with fat increases inflammation, so if you eat a lot of bread, pasta, and especially sugary baked goods that include both grains and added sweeteners, this amplifies the inflammation of sugar. If you’re not going to eat vegetables and you plan to continue to eat carby junk foods, I suggest limiting your butter intake. But I’d much rather have you switch to whole foods and keep the butter.
Better Butter: The 3 Best Butters To Buy
Because of the state of dairy farming today, I don’t recommend just any old butter. Here are three better butters to try out:
Organic grass-fed butter.
Cows grazing on sunny green pastures is how it once was and always should be. This butter has higher fat levels of soluble vitamins and better healthy fat balance. Look for butter from cows in New Zealand, which have lower levels of the inflammatory beta A1 casein. I love Kerry Gold Organic Grass-Fed Butter.
Grass-fed A2 butter.
The original A2 genetics such as Guernsey, Normande, Heritage Jersey, African, and Indian cows.
This choice is my favorite because ghee, also called clarified butter, has had the casein protein removed, leaving the butter fat with all its fat-soluble vitamins and none of the risk of casein reactivity. Because the dairy protein is removed, ghee has a high smoking point, making it a good option to cook with, unlike extra-virgin olive oil, which will oxidize and become inflammatory when heated.
You can clarify your butter yourself, but if you are sensitive to casein, there are great brands that batch-test their ghee to make sure it is 100% casein-free. My personal favorites are Tin Star Brown Butter Ghee and Pure Indian Foods Digestive Ghee and Cultured Ghee.
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