Butter is Back. Is Grass-Fed Better?


Photo by: FotografiaBasica


On the heels of the bulletproof coffee trend, butter sales are up. In fact, butter consumption in the US is nearing a 50-year record high. With just two ingredients: cream and salt, even conventional supermarket butter is perceived to be pure and simple. And beyond conventional butter, there's grass-fed, cultured and European-style. What's the difference? And are any — or all — of these butters actually healthy?

Grass-Fed Butter

The 'grass-fed' label is actually an 'add-on' certification to the USDA-certified 'organic' label. In the US, butter labeled as 'organic,' is from cows which must be given access to at least 120 days of pasture grass (or 30% dry grass feed). "Butter labeled as 'grass-fed' and organic is from the milk of cows raised only on grass and forage and no grain," explains Enid Wonnacott, Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. Why does a label matter? In a study from Organic Valley Dairy, researchers from Washington State University found that milk from grass-fed cows contained a higher content of omega-3 fats (mainly ALA), as well as healthful conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs). CLAs are thought to help reduce the risk of cancer. In a recent study, butter from grass-fed cows also had higher levels of omega-3s and CLAs compared to conventional butter.

The Health Benefits

The amount of the most healthful omega-3's in butter is probably rather insignificant when compared to the amount found in fish and other good sources of these healthy fats. A 3-ounce serving of white Albacore tuna has about 1000 mg of the healthiest omega-3 fats known as DHA and EPA; to equal this amount of DHA and EPA, we calculated that you would have to eat over two pounds of grass-fed butter. However, if adding a drizzle of melted grass-fed butter to your roasted cauliflower means you'll eat a few more veggies, the omega-3s that accompany that butter are certainly a bonus. Organic and grass-fed milk can have levels of healthy omega-3 fats (mainly ALA) that are 50 percent higher than those in conventional whole milk, the numbers are probably similar for grass-fed butters.

Cultured Butter

This pleasantly-tangy butter can be a treat with more flavor than regular butter. "Cultured butter is made when natural lactic bacteria cultures fresh milk, resulting in creme fraiche; the creme fraiche is then churned and becomes cultured butter," explains Allison Hooper, Co-Founder of Vermont Creamery.  Cultured butter is ideal for baking because the lower moisture content produces flakier pie crusts and fluffier cakes.

The Health Benefits

Cultured butter is a naturally fermented food. Nutrition experts have noted that fermented foods from kefir to kimchi have benefits to the body's microbiome. However, the amount of bacteria cultures and the variety of cultures in a cup of yogurt are much higher than in cultured butter. That said, spreading cultured butter on whole grain bread may give a more satisfying bite, leading to eating less overall. "Cultured butter lasts for months under refrigeration and maintains a wonderful full flavor," says Hooper.

European-Style Butter

This old-fashioned variation is made from cream that is churned more slowly and for a longer time. It has a butterfat content of at least 82 percent, compared to USDA-standardized regular butter which has 80 percent butterfat. The increased amount of butterfat means less water content, and is beneficial for baking and even high-temperature pan searing.

The Health Benefits

Recently, researchers found that butter consumption was associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Several Nordic Diet studies have shown an association between increased dairy consumption and reduced risk of diabetes. But amounts are key. One tablespoon of European-style butter contains about 110 calories, nearly the same as a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil with 120 calories. When butter is eaten within the context of a diet including lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish, as in Nordic countries, the diet can be healthful and delicious.

Healthy recipes featuring butter:

Serena Ball, MS, RD is a food writer and registered dietitian nutritionist. She blogs at TeaspoonOfSpice.com sharing tips and tricks to help families find healthy living shortcuts. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and Snapchat.

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