Some will argue that butter is not Paleo and was not consumed by our ancestors of the Paleolithic. While there is truth to that, when consuming pure butter fat with the proteins and sugars removed by making clarified butter (ghee), we obtain a highly saturated fat that’s not much different from other sources of healthy animal saturated fat. An argument can also be made for the fact that butter has been consumed in large quantity by some populations long before coconut oil was. Coconuts are only available in a few corners of the world and the oil that we consume today has to be extracted. In comparison to butter, coconut oil consumption is much more recent and we would in theory be better adapted to butter than coconut oil. You’ll even see in this article that our species seems to have adapted to be less efficient at producing and transforming certain nutrients that are in high concentration in foods like butter, bone marrow and brain. This basically means that we adapted to rely on other foods and lost the need to metabolize those nutrients like other mammals do.
We also have to keep in mind that milk is meant to be the first food that will help a newborn grow and be healthy, not plants that contain toxins not designed to be eaten. It’s no wonder then that the main fat in milk is highly nutritious and healthy. Butter even deserves special attention because it contains high amounts of some nutrients seldom found in other foods. Some of the healthiest cultures studied by Weston A. Price where consuming very high amounts of butter.
It’s important to keep in mind that the beneficial properties of butter discussed here apply to butter from grass-fed and pastured cows or goats, and preferably raw butter. Regular factory-produced butter still beats any vegetable oils, but will be very pale in color and poor in a lot of the special nutrients that butter from cows eating green grass contains. In fact, butter produced from cows eating a rapidly growing green grass will often have a yellowish color, denoting the high presence of beta-carotenes.
Activator X (vitamin K2)
Weston Price found in his observations of traditional cultures that there was a special activator present in their diets that permitted vitamin A and D to do doing their work of strengthening the bones and teeth by permitting proper utilization of calcium and phosphorous. He found that without that special activator bone problems started to happen and children where often born with poor facial bone structure. He called it Activator X. He also concluded that this particular activator was available in high quantity in pastured butter, fish eggs and some organs like marrow and liver from grass-fed cows.
Today, we recognize what he called activator X as vitamin K2 and its importance is just beginning to be recognized in the mainstream. Vitamin K1, which is abundant in vegetables, can be transformed to K2, but the process is very ineffective in our case. It’s one of those things that we actually evolved to be less efficient at creating because we had an easy access with the food we ate. Some amount of vitamin K2 is also produced by a healthy gut flora, but even with that, most people today are greatly deficient in vitamin K2, showing that the fraction of K2 produced by our gut flora is far from sufficient.
Vitamin K2 is present in the organs and fat of cows eating a green grass rich in vitamin K1, which means a rapidly growing green-grass. The greener and fresher the grass, the more K2 will be present in the animal. Butter from cows eating such grass is one of the best sources of vitamin K2 in its MK-4 form. Another form, MK-7, is available in fermented products like nato, a traditional Japanese fermented soy, but it’s still unknown if those two forms have the same activity in our bodies. Other than butter, goose liver, pastured eggs and some organs like marrow and kidneys are good sources of vitamin K2.
Dr. Price was right in calling this vitamin an activator because K2 works to activate certain proteins that vitamin A and D produce. These activated proteins then have the ability to bind calcium and phosphorus for its proper deposition in bones and teeth. Vitamin K2 also prevents calcium from being deposited in places like the arteries where it can cause heart disease and atherosclerosis, the number one killer in America. In fact, some go as far as proclaiming that atherosclerosis is simply the extension of a vitamin K2 deficiency since K2 is so efficient at preventing the problem.
Furthermore, vitamin K2 prevents against vitamin D toxicity and such toxicity could actually be a sign of vitamin K2 deficiency more than too much vitamin D. Vitamin K2 has also been shown to reduce the amount of acidophilus bacteria in our mouths. Acidophilus can do wonder for us in our gut, but is strongly associated with tooth decay when present in our mouth.
Vitamin K2 has been shown to be important for brain function and the reproductive system. Vitamin K2 deficiency might also be the cause of most kidney stones because it has the ability to prevent calcium oxalate crystals from forming, which is what causes kidney stones.
In the traditional cultures studied by Dr. Price, people took great care to feed food rich in K2 like butter, liver or fish eggs to pregnant or lactating women. Improper amounts of K2 during the child’s development have been shown to cause calcification of cartilaginous areas of the bones that are supposed to continue growing. This creates an underdeveloped facial structure which leads to a lack of room for all the teeth to come out straight.
Butter, even from grain-fed cows, is rich in butyric acid, a short-chain saturated fatty acid that is produced by our gut flora and is used for energy by our colon. It has now been found to be a major contributor to a healthy metabolism and helps control our blood lipids and our insulin sensitivity. One study found that mice fed a butyric acid supplement had a 300% increase in their insulin sensitivity. This goes to show that this nutrient is not to be taken lightly.
It has anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and anti-stress properties and is being studied to cure all kinds of problems including leaky gut, Crohn’s disease and a host of autoimmune diseases. In fact, it’s now believed that some of the metabolic problems that are plaguing us today are not only relieved by butyric acid, but could indeed be caused by a lack of that precious fatty acid in the first place.
Another way to get butyric acid in our diet is by eating fiber from natural sources like vegetables because our gut flora will ferment the fiber and produce it. This is provided that you have a healthy gut flora though, which is a whole other story.
I think we still have much more to discover in regards to the importance of butyric acid on our health.
100g of butter contains 81g of fat, the remaining 19g being water. Of those 81g, 51g is saturated, 21g is monounsaturated and 3g is polyunsaturated. This fat composition is similar to the fat of ruminants (tallow) and is ideal for our health. Saturated and monounsaturated fats are good to have in high amounts while polyunsaturated fats, even though essential, should be kept to a minimal amount.
No more than 4% of our caloric intake as polyunsaturated fat is a desirable amount. Of course, when the butter comes from grass-fed cows, the omega-3 portion of the polyunsaturated fat is higher. Compared to butter or tallow, lard and poultry fat contains much more polyunsaturated fat and is less advisable in high amount to keep a good omega-6/omega-3 ratio. Even more so, the omega-6 content of lard tends to be on the high side even when the animal was well treated. This is true in part because those animals are omnivorous and you’ll rarely find sources of those animals fed their omnivorous diet, but also because they accumulate more polyunsaturated fat naturally. In this sense, even grain-fed ruminants will more often than not have a better omega-3/omega-6 profile than free-range chickens and pork.
Another important point concerning the fat composition of butter is the presence of medium-chain fatty acids, the main one being lauric acid. Those medium-chain fatty acids have antimicrobial properties. The presence of those fatty acids in butter notes their importance for a growing child, perhaps in great part for its antimicrobial activity and the development of a healthy gut flora that is so important at a young age. Coconut oil is composed of about 66% medium-chain fatty acids, but butter will probably contain an amount proportional to what’s optimal for a healthy gut flora because too much antimicrobial activity can destroy the beneficial bacterial population as well.
CLA (Conjugated linoleic acid)
Believe it or not, CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) is actually a trans fat, but an healthy one in this case. It has strong anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Numerous studies have shown CLA to hinder the growth of mammary, colon and skin cancers.
It is found in the fat and butter fat of grass-fed ruminants, with kangaroo being the best source. Grass-fed sources contain from 300% to 500% more CLA than their grain-fed counterparts. Pastured eggs are also a source of CLA.
The meat and fat of grass-fed ruminants has been the main source of food for most of our ancestors so CLA consumption has been around for a long time and we’ve probably maybe even adapted to rely on it for some of its protective properties.
Vitamins and minerals
Grass-fed cows also produce butter that is rich in vitamin A, vitamin E, iodine, selenium and beta-carotenes.
Vitamin A is the most abundant fat soluble vitamin present in butter and regular consumption of butter has the potential to resolve the widespread deficiency of this vitamin in North America, even without following a Paleo diet. It is essential for proper protein metabolism, a strong immune system, good thyroid function, good vision, bone metabolism and skin health. It’s also a powerful antioxidant. Vitamin A works in synergy with vitamin D and vitamin K2 to properly deposit calcium in bones and teeth and provide proper bone mineralization. Most sources of beta-carotenes like carrots are thought to be good sources of vitamin A because beta-carotene can be transformed to the usable vitamin A form, but this is incorrect and the conversion is actually really poor. Folks who eat a lot of carrots while thinking that they’re getting plenty of vitamin A are misled.
Iodine is a mineral that is really important for proper thyroid functioning and most people today have very low levels of iodine. You’re at risk of being even more iodine deficient on a Paleo diet if you eliminated conventional salt from your diet. In fact, salt started to be iodized because goiters in North America were a major health problem. Most people were deficient in iodine because the soils are now almost universally deficient in iodine. Chronic low levels of iodine lead to the enlargement of the thyroid that we call goiter. Seaweeds are a great source of iodine.
Selenium and vitamin E are two powerful antioxidants that are also lacking in most people’s diet. The best source of selenium is fish.
Even though most people think of cholesterol as something bad to eliminate at all cost, cholesterol is an essential component of life and has strong protective and antioxidant effects. It’s also the precursor for all sex hormones.
Even more so, dietary cholesterol has been shown again and again to raise the good cholesterol (HDL), not the bad one (LDL) and that a high HDL coupled with low serum triglycerides is much more indicative of a healthy cardiovascular system than low total cholesterol. Therefore, the cholesterol present in butter is protective against heart disease and promotes healthy levels of sex hormones, which are so important for developing children and menopausal women.
The take home message of this article is to go ahead and indulge in healthy doses of grass-fed butter. If you still fear dairy or are healing from gut problems or autoimmune disease, go a step further and clarify your butter to make ghee.
You were able to see that a fat like butter is not only an excellent source of energy, but also a source of some really important vitamins and compounds that are lacking in today’s western diet, and that have the potential to cure a lot of nutritional deficiencies. On the opposite side, most sources of energy on a standard western diet are carbs, which are not only empty nutritionally, but damaging to our gut and cause nutrient deficiencies because of the anti-nutrients. If only we weren’t so scared of fat as a society and could study a food for its real properties, we would see the importance butter has for the development of children so they can become strong and bright men and women.
I also strongly believe that the fear of any dairy products on a Paleo diet is ill-advised, especially with a product like butter which can be extracted from its dairy components and eaten pure. Again, we are looking to reproduce the metabolic environment of our ancestors more so than eating the exact same food products. Some of the most healthy and thriving traditional cultures have relied on butter for thousands of years for good health and with good reason.
Last but not least, butter has a taste that’s so good. I have yet to find a food for which taste isn’t greatly enhanced by the addition of a generous portion of butter.