Butter: Healthy or unhealthy? - December 2016


Traditionally, the recommendation has been to limit saturated fatty acid intake in favour of unsaturated fatty acids. Because butter is one of the foods highest in saturated fat, the advice often given by practitioners has been to limit butter consumption.

‘Does butter increase the risk of Heart disease’ debate was thrown wide open with a meta-analysis recently published in PLOS One. Its findings even questioned the hypothesis that butter has a harmful effect. Its authors, who compiled nine observational studies carried out in 15 countries, came to a clear conclusion—that eating butter is not associated with an increase in cardio vascular (CV) risk. Nor did they find a dose/effect relationship.

The mainstream media quickly picked up on this study to extol the virtues of butter, claiming that this wrongly accused food is even beneficial to our health. However the meta-analysis included only observational studies, with all of the biases inherent in this type of study. Furthermore, most of these studies involved healthy persons—not people at high cardio vascular risk.

Finally, in nutrition, eating more of one thing means eating less of another. The authors of the meta-analysis said, "People who eat butter probably eat fewer sweets and processed foods, such as refined, processed grain products." Therefore, butter is perhaps better than certain processed foods, but it can't be concluded that it is, in itself, a healthy food. Bear in mind that butter is the fat with the highest fatty acid content: 10 g of butter contains 5 g of saturated fat. By comparison, 10 g of olive oil contains 1.5 g of saturated fat.

What is not debated is butter's cholesterol-raising effect. Butter increases the blood low-density lipoprotein cholesterol level, even when consumed in moderate amounts. As for saturated fat intake and the incidence of CV disease, what emerges overall is the potential benefit of replacing saturated with unsaturated fats, especially when the latter are provided by healthy vegetable oils like olive oil. This is the conclusion of a very recent analysis of cohorts of US health professionals published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

In short, when talking about butter, we need to have a balanced discussion that is in line with current knowledge:

  • First, butter is not necessary for maintaining good health. It is not a "health food" per se.
  • Second, butter is one of the foods with the highest saturated fat content, and consuming it on a regular basis promotes an increase in blood cholesterol levels.
  • Third, butter is not a poison. There is, therefore, no justification for stigmatizing butter. It should be considered a pleasure food for those who are fond of it, provided that it is consumed in moderate amounts and not consumed in addition to other foods that are high in saturated fatty acids.

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