There’s a lot of diversity in butter, and a lot of difference in price too. You may be wondering if the higher cost of grass-fed butter is worth the money. Or maybe you’re in search of the difference between grass-fed butter, organic butter, clarified butter, and margarine. Are there proven health benefits of any one over the others? We have all these answers and more.
So you have a need for some sort of butter in your kitchen, or you’re on a diet which allows for dairy and healthy fats like the keto diet, but you aren’t sure which butter is the healthiest choice? We’ll start with the definitions and distinctions between different forms of butter.
When it comes to basics, butter is made by taking the fresh cream from cow’s milk and churning it to separate the fat (butter) from the buttermilk. Grass-fed butter is also known as pastured butter, made from the milk obtained from pastured, grass-fed cows. This is not only better for the cows, but the final product is better for us too, as these healthier cows are eating what they were made to eat and not being fed subpar scraps and shot up with antibiotics to keep them alive and producing.
Industrial farming practices can lead to dairy cows being shuttered in cruel conditions and fed GMO-derived commercial feed made from grains, corn, and soy that are full of hormones, starches, and sometimes the byproducts of vegetable oil production. Just as we are what we eat, cows produce milk that has elements of what they eat, and if your butter is made from dairy cows full of hormones, antibiotics, and inorganic foods, then that’s what you are eating too.
Green grass on the other hand is plant matter full of phytonutrients like beta-carotene, which is the precursor to vitamin A production. We ourselves consume beta-carotene from food like tomatoes and carrots, and it matters when it comes to your butter too. You can actually see the difference between grain-fed and grass-fed butter products: grass-fed butter is a rich yellow color, while commercial butter is often pale yellow or even white. Grass-fed butter scores higher in flavor approval in consumer studies as well, and has greater health benefits, which we’ll outline later in this article.
Organic butter is not the same as grass-fed better. While it is certified to be free of pesticides, that’s not exactly to say that the cows are grazing comfortably. Organic simply means that whatever is being fed to the cows isn’t covered in certain farming pesticides.
Keep in mind, that the cows aren’t necessarily eating grass and their feed may still contain other chemical ingredients you don’t want. Investigate which company is making your organic butter and the practices they use before selecting a preferred brand.
If you find organic pastured or grass-fed butter, you’re a lot closer to the most natural food, but they are nevertheless distinct terms that don’t always go together.
Irish butter is made in a European style from grass-fed cow’s milk produced in Ireland. It has a higher healthy fat composition than regular butter, lending it a far richer texture and taste.
Cultured butter is made from the lactose sugars present in soured (fermented) cream. European style butter is made this way, by incorporating bacterial cultures in a manner much like yogurt. It often has a tangier taste than fresh cream butter, which is (in comparison) known as “sweet butter.”
Sweet butter is also the name assigned to many unsalted butters on commercial packaging. Salt acts as a preservative in butter, making sweet butter fresher and made without fermented bacteria. It can still be derived from non-GMO grass-fed milk, but just like the term “organic,” you cannot assume that one always implies the other.
When you melt butter and then let it cool, there is a top layer made largely of whey protein and butterfat. By removing that layer you are left with a casein protein substance known as clarified butter or ghee (when it’s ultra-clarified).
This process removes nearly all of the dairy and lactose proteins that those who are lactose intolerant cannot eat, creating a butter product that, while still a dairy product, may be tolerable to those with mild lactose sensitivity. Ghee also has an incredibly long shelf life (up to a year before becoming rancid in some cases), and, of course, it’s possible to get grass-fed ghee as well.
Margarine is not really butter at all, hence its new name. It’s a concoction made largely of vegetable oils (entirely plant-based and dairy-free), including genetically modified substances like corn, soybean, or canola oil. These oils are often heat-processed (unlike the cold-pressed oils coconut and olive oil), and high in trans fats, which can lead to greater risk for heart disease.
Margarine was developed as a more affordable butter alternative under the direction of Napoleon in the late 1800s, and it was chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries who perfected the process. Though banned and taxed in the United States until the 1950s, in part because American dairy farmers protested this non-milk form of butter, commercial margarines today are widely available, and many go the extra mile to remove trans fats from their final products.
Now that you have a basis for the spectrum of butters, here are some key distinctions between grain-fed and grass-fed butter that may cause you to make the switch to the more natural product.
Ketogenic dieters quickly become well-versed in the uses of grass-fed butter and ghee for healthy, natural fats, but it’s relevant to point out just what “healthy” fat means: zero carbs, zero protein, and zero sugars. It’s essentially pure fat made up of mostly healthy saturated fats and no dangerous trans fats.
Saturated fat is designated healthy because of its beneficial impact in comparison to damaging substances like sugar and trans fats, which lead to elevated LDL or “bad” cholesterol, while saturated fats contribute to “good” HDL cholesterol levels. HDL cholesterol is denser and can help clear out LDL cholesterol before those tiny molecules get into your bloodstream and start building up fatty plaque deposits on your artery walls. This reduces the risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.
The milk fat used in making butter is more than 80% pure fat and full of over 400 different fatty acids. This makes it the most robust natural fat, containing high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids, medium-chain triglycerides (like those found in coconut oil), and conjugated linoleic acid.
Before we’re done speaking of fats, it should be noted that grass-fed butter is full of fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants, including vitamins A, D, E, K, and vitamin K2, which has been studied in relation to heart health due to its ability to block plaque buildup in our arteries (atherosclerosis).
Whether or not you’re on a high-fat diet like keto, incorporating grass-fed butter over grain-fed butter in your diet is as good for your health and the environment as purchasing grass-fed beef or poultry and eggs. Not only is grass-fed dairy higher in health benefits, but by taking your money out of operations with grain-fed cows, you are using your dollars to help shape more sustainable and ethical farming practices.
Products you may want to look for are Anchor butter (New Zealand’s grass-fed butter, which can be found on online shopping sites like Amazon), Kerrygold butter (an Irish butter), and certified USDA Organic Valley Pastured Butter. Health food stores and grocery stores like Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods often carry a variety of grass-fed butter, and your local farmers market may have even more unique options, including butters made using raw milk or salted and preserved with sea salt.
Decide what you’re looking for in a butter, and know that there’s likely a product out there that will perfectly suit your needs.