19 July 2016

Is butter really back?

Because it no longer regarded as dangerous to our health, more and more people are using butter as a dietary fat source, but will it actually make us healthier?

There seems to be a butter revival in recent times, with people serving steamed vegetables with large knobs of butter, spreading thick layers of butter on their seed crackers, and even adding a teaspoon of butter to their morning coffee.

This new craze stems from the fact that many experts have come to the conclusion that saturated fat is not public enemy number one. Are they right or wrong? Health24’s “Dietitians” weigh in.  

The main type of fatty acid in a dietary fat source definitely has an effect on our health. A longer fatty acid chain is better for our overall health, including our cardiovascular disease risk and cholesterol profile. Shorter chain fatty acids are less desirable, as these have been shown to increase cholesterol and have the largest negative effect on cardiovascular disease risk.

Neutral effect on health

Butter is made up of mostly oleic, myristic and palmitic fatty acids, which are considered medium chain fatty acids. Therefore butter should have more of a neutral effect on health than previously believed. The creamy spread has been around for centuries and as the manufacturing process has remained largely unchanged, butter is also regarded as “less processed”.

Read: Butter may not be a health risk after all

Because it no longer regarded as dangerous to our health, more and more people are using butter as a dietary fat source. The question, however, remains if butter, when preferred over other fat sources in the diet, will contribute to improved health outcomes?

A large study done by Harvard researchers looked into saturated fat in the diet and overall health. They followed 85,000 women and nearly 43,000 men, and found that it is what is eaten in place of saturated fat that really matters. If you remove saturated fats such as butter, milk fat, cream, fat from meat and skin from chicken, but replace these foods with refined carbohydrates such as baked goods, refined white flours and added sugar, there is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

A variety of nutrients

However, replacing saturated fats, like butter, with unsaturated fats (avocado, olive oil, canola oil, nut butters) or other nutrient-rich spreads such as hummus improves heart health and insulin sensitivity. Increased insulin sensitivity improves the uptake of sugar (glucose) into the cell for better blood glucose control.

Read: Are you insulin resistant?

Remember also that many dietary recommendations regarding butter are largely based on the predicted effects of specific individual nutrients (e.g. total saturated fat) on health. We need to remember that we do not eat single nutrients but foods that contain a variety of different nutrients. We also don’t consume single foods, but rather have eating patterns consisting of a variety of different foods. These patterns either involve foods with a variety of different health-promoting nutrients (fibre, phytonutrients, unsaturated fats etc.) or consist of foods with a poor nutrient quality because of processing and refining, with the food industry adding sugars and unhealthy fats such as trans fatty acids to the foods.

It has become popular to focus on a specific nutrient of which we then try to eat either lots or very little of, depending on whether it is deemed “good” or “bad”. We should rather focus on healthy dietary patterns that include whole, minimally processed and nutritious foods, as the presence or absence of a variety of nutrients plays a large role in promoting health or disease.

The bottom line

So what is the bottom line then when it comes to using butter? Food choices rich in the unsaturated fats (mono- and polyunsaturated) like olive oil, avocado pear, olive tapenade, nut butters and seed oils, will actively improve your lipid profile and reduce insulin resistance.

Foods high in saturated fats (such as butter, ghee and animal fats like skin on chicken) will not lower your cholesterol profile, though. In fact, evidence based research shows that these fats may increase your cholesterol profile. When aiming to reduce your risk for disease, don’t replace them with highly processed, refined carbohydrates (such as white flour products, sweets, chocolates, and sugary baked goods) as this has definitively been shown to increase disease risk.   

Read: Watch those carbs!                                      

To promote health, it is important to have a food pattern characterised by consumption of mainly unsaturated fats (oils, nuts, avocado pear, nut butters) fresh fruit and vegetables, fatty fish, low fat dairy and whole grains (corn, quinoa, bulgur wheat, rolled oats, high fibre cereals, pearled wheat and wild brown rice).

Bear in mind that you don’t have to ban the butter, but if you want to actively promote your health and reduce cardiovascular disease, don’t use butter to the exclusion of healthier alternatives. Slap avocado on your crackers, or drizzle olive oil over your vegetables. And stay away from butter in your morning coffee!

Read more:

Don't replace saturated fats with processed carbs

Low fat won't shed the kilos

Hydrogenated fats


1. Jakobsen MU., O'Reilly EJ., Heitmann BL., et al. (2009) Major types of dietary fat and risk of coronary heart disease: a pooled analysis of 11 cohort studies. Am J Clin Nutr.;89(5):1425-32.

2. Pimpin L., Wu JH., Haskelberg H., et al. (2016) Is Butter Back? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Butter Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Total Mortality. PLoS One.;11(6):e0158118.

3. Senese F. (2010) What is the chemical structure of butter?

4. Hubbard A. (2014) Clarifying the facts on fat: Is butter really back? Harvard Public Health Magazine, Fall Edition.


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