Thursday, March 21, 2013

Is All Butter Created Equal?

Butter. The word brings up feelings of longing. Longing for something forbidden. In the name of health, we’ve given it up, told that eating it would lead to heart disease, obesity and a whole host of modern ailments. But butter is not the enemy. In fact, we should be eating more of it. It’s far better for us than all the industrial vegetable oils and hardened artificial fats like margarine they’d like us to believe are better for us. They simply aren’t. Butter is a natural food product, while all these pseudo-fats are products of the industrial revolution.

There’s a reason people are crazy for butter. Maybe because the stuff tastes like heaven and goes with nearly everything! I mean, what wouldn't be better with some butter on it? I can't think of anything. Can you?

Most of us are in agreement that the nutritional content of the food we eat, be it animal or vegetable, depends on the content of its diet or the way it was grown, and the same goes for butter. Therefore, butter knowledge is important because not all of it is created equal.

Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed
The vast majority of the butter we see on supermarket shelves is grain-fed. That is, it comes from cows that were fed a grain-based diet. So, what’s the alternative? Grass-fed. And as the name implies, these cows are fed a grass-based diet, as Nature intended. But it’s more than about what Nature intended. It’s also about the nutritional value and, let’s face it, taste.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) Content
CLA is found in eggs, meat and dairy products and though it’s a trans-fat, it’s a good, naturally occurring one. The special digestive systems of grass-fed ruminant animals produce CLA internally. The resulting fat – which has been linked to superior heart health, suppression of tumors, reduced belly fat and greater fat loss in the obese and overweight – is found in the flesh and dairy of the animal. As far as cows go, pasture feeding leads to dairy CLA levels 3-5 times that of grain-fed cattle.

Vitamin Content
Grass-fed vs. grain-fed butter
Brightly colored fruits and vegetables contain the most phytonutrients. In fact, the actual dyes responsible for providing color to vegetation, like the blue in blueberry, are also usually antioxidants. The same is true for butter. If you were to do a comparison, you’d notice how grass-fed butter actually looks like what you’d imagine butter to look like. It’s a deep yellow, sometimes bordering on orange, whereas grain-fed butter is white and waxy. It’s yellow because it has more carotene and Vitamin A. It’s got more carotene because it comes from cows that eat fresh vegetation rich in the stuff. From pasture to ruminant to digestive tract to butterfat to butter to you.

Vitamin K2 appears to reduce, prevent, or even counteract arterial plaque, and it helps the body use calcium correctly and effectively and it’s another vital component of grass-fed butter. Cow stomach fermentation turns K1 (found in leafy greens, like kale, chard, spinach, and, yes, leaves of grass) into K2, which then shows up in the dairy fat. How much Vitamin K1 do you think there is in corn? Not much.

Fatty Acid Composition
Whether it’s grass-fed or grain-fed, butter is rich in saturated (about 2/3) and monounsatured (just under 1/3) fat. The rest is polyunsaturated, but this is where grass-fed and grain-fed really differ. Cows raised on pasture produce milk fat with an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 1:1, a balance. Grain-fed cows, on the other hand, produce a ratio tilted toward omega 6. It’s true that we’re talking about relatively miniscule amounts of polyunsaturated fats here, but balanced is better.

Though flavor is usually subjective (what tastes better is entirely a matter of personal opinion), that does not apply to butter. Grass-fed butter tastes objectively better using any parameter. Creaminess? Richness? Mouth-feel? Hands down, grass-fed is the winner.
That being said, grain-fed butter is still a better option than conventional cooking fats, like vegetable oil or margarine, which are so detrimental to health. But fortunately, grass-fed butter isn’t hard to find. It’s more expensive, sure, but it’s still cheaper than exclusively buying grass-fed meat. In fact, for those of us who can’t regularly eat pastured meat, eating lean cuts of conventional meat cooked in quality grass-fed butter is a great compromise.

Look for these brands near you:
An easy-to-find brand is Kerrygold, an Irish dairy whose cows are all pastured and whose butter is incredible. An 8 oz. cube sells for $2.99 at Trader Joe’s, but it’s also in basic and specialty grocery stores (albeit for slightly higher prices). Look for the silver foil (unsalted) and gold foil (salted) packages.

At Sprouts Market, I found one from Humboldt Creamery. One pound is $4.99. I had it on my potatoes last night and put a pat of it on my fish and it was delicious. 

A couple of additional ones I’ve read about but haven’t yet tried:

Anchor butter hails from New Zealand, land of reliably grass-fed lamb, and it can be found at Whole Foods.
Organic Valley has a seasonal pastured, cultured, salted butter that usually appears in spring (now), which is when the grass is at its greenest. It comes in a green foil package. 
Farmers’ markets. If you’ve got a dairy stall, you’ve probably got access to good butter. Talk to the producers about the cows’ diet.

Butter terminology
What is cultured butter?
Cultured butter is traditionally made from fermented, or soured, cream. It’s not actually the butterfat that ferments, but rather the trace amounts of lactose sugars present. Nowadays, though, most commercial cultured butter is “cultured” by the incorporation of bacterial cultures. “European style” butter is cultured butter.
What is “sweet butter”?
Historically, sweet cream butter came from fresh cream, rather than soured or fermented cream. Relative to cultured butter, it’s rather “sweet.” These days, it’s often just another way to describe unsalted butter. Sweet butter is better for cooking, as most recipes assume the use of unsalted butter. Also, since salt is a preservative, sweet butter tends to be fresher (since it has to be, having no preservatives).

What is clarified butter?
Heat butter until it melts, let it cool and settle, then skim off the top layer of whey protein and pour off the butterfat, leaving the casein proteins on the bottom – you’ve got clarified butter.
What about ghee?
Ghee is basically pure butterfat, rendered down and stricken of all lactose and dairy proteins. It’s ultra-clarified butter in that it reaches a temperature high enough to cook off the water and brown the milk solids, which imparts a nutty flavor to the finished product. Properly made, ghee can stay on the counter for about a year without going bad. If you’ve got one, check your local Indian grocer. They’ll have huge tubs of intensely yellow ghee for sale. Is it all grass-fed? No idea, and the rich color isn’t a reliable indicator since the color could come from the browned milk solids. 


  1. I'm catching up on my blogs...I have a recommedation for you, one of vendors at work. They are Kalona Supernatural, and they make a bunch of dairy products, all organic. Their butter is my favorite by far. (and they are really nice too :D) You can find them at Whole Foods.

  2. Thanks for the information, Karine. I will look into that.


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