Butter is almost a symbol of unhealthy eating at this point: it's one of those "bad" foods where the only people who still eat it are the people who just don't care at all about their health. Surely everyone who actually wants to live past 60 is dutifully smearing margarine on their high-fiber whole-wheat toast, right?
But actually, butter has quite a few virtues, especially if the cows that produced the milk were raised on pasture and not in a factory farm. Grass-fed butter is rich in important nutrients like Vitamin K2, and it contains a type of fat called butyric acid, which helps maintain colon health. It's also rich in conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat that may actually help protect against weight gain. There's no need to eat it if it doesn't sit right with your particular digestive system, but it definitely doesn't deserve its spot as the poster child for bad nutritional choices.
Potential Objections to Eating Butter
The problem with butter is that its reputation proceeds it. Before diving into the health benefits, here's a look at some of the common reasons why people don't want to eat butter or don't consider it Paleo.
But Butter Wasn't Around in the Paleolithic!
Technically, no. But if you're only going to eat things that were around in the Paleolithic, you'd better also stop eating almost all meat you can buy at a supermarket (including beef, chicken, and pork), and most commonly available fruits and vegetables, because those weren't around in the Paleolithic either.
It's literally impossible to re-create the diet of people in the Paleolithic, because we don't have the foods that they ate: when was the last time you had auroch steak? The point of Paleo is to learn from Paleolithic diets, isolate the parts that made them healthier, and imitate them with modern foods in the areas that matter. So the question about butter isn't "was it around in the Paleolithic?" but "Does it fit into a healthy human diet, based on what we know about human nutritional needs from our evolutionary history?" Whether or not it was literally available in the Paleolithic isn't important.
But Butter is a Kind of Dairy!
A more reasonable objection on the "butter isn't Paleo" front is that butter is a dairy food. Dairy is a Paleo gray area because the proteins it contains don't play nicely with everyone's immune system, and the carbohydrates can cause digestive problems. Some variations on Paleo (like versions designed for autoimmune diseases) completely exclude it.
That's all true, and some people do better with all dairy completely out of their diet. But even if they can't eat other forms of dairy, many people can actually tolerate butter very well. Butter is almost entirely fat, with very low levels of the proteins and carbohydrates that make other dairy foods potentially problematic. And you can actually clarify it to make ghee (also called clarified butter) which has even fewer milk proteins and carbohydrates. Making ghee basically involves heating the butter at a very low heat until the water evaporates and the proteins float to the top, and then skimming off the protein to get the pure fat. Ghee is almost pure fat, like tallow or other animal fats.
Even ghee still won't play nicely with everyone's body, but a lot of people who can't do milk or yogurt or other dairy foods can still eat ghee or butter without an issue.
But What About the Saturated Fat and Cholesterol!
Yes, butter is high in saturated fat and cholesterol. If you're eating Paleo, you should already know that neither of those is a demon killer nutrient that will strike you dead of instant heart failure the moment you look sideways at a steak. In fact, cholesterol is actually very important - for example, it helps you synthesize Vitamin D from sunlight. Here's more on saturated fat, and here's a bunch of studies on cholesterol, if you don't already know the Paleo take on those or need a refresher.
Nutritional Benefits of Butter
So maybe butter doesn't actually deserve its reputation as a heart attack in a convenient 8-tablespoon stick. But having said all that, why would you want to eat this food? Actually, it has quite a few nutritional upsides.
Vitamin K2/"Activator X"
Once upon a time in Cleveland, Ohio, there was a dentist called Weston A. Price who was really interested in the nutritional underpinnings of health. To make a long story very short, he traveled all around the world and documented the diets of traditional cultures with very low rates of tooth decay and cavities. Then he came home and did experiments on his patients until he had isolated some of the foods he thought were particularly important for dental health.
One of the nutritional observations he made was the existence of some substance called "Activator X:" it sounds like a science project from the next Captain America movie, but it's actually a nutrient that helps the body use other vitamins to strengthen bones and teeth. Weston A. Price determined that it was present in butter (among other foods, like bone marrow and fish eggs), but didn't know much else about it.
Today, we think Activator X is probably Vitamin K2. You can read all about Vitamin K2 here, but here are the highlights:
- Vitamin K2 helps your bones use calcium properly, so it ends up in your skeleton where they belong (and not, say, in your arteries where it doesn't belong and where it causes dangerous plaques). Vitamin K2 is also important for other vitamins, like A and D - Dr. Price called it an "activator" because it helps your bones use those vitamins. So it's important for bone health and for heart health.
- You can make it from Vitamin K1 (that's the "vitamin K" in vegetables) but the conversion is inefficient.
- Your gut flora can make it themselves, but most people can't get enough just from that.
Instead of trying to convert K1 to K2 yourself, it's much easier to let the cow do it. Unlike you, a cow has four stomachs - digesting tons of plant roughage is exactly what they were designed to do. The cow eats grass rich in K1 and converts it to K2, and the K2 is present in the milk. The fattier the dairy product, the more concentrated the K2, so butter is exactly what you want to be eating to get the full benefits.
Butyric acid is another area where eating butter helps support something useful that your gut flora do. Butyric acid is a short-chain fatty acid that a healthy person's gut flora naturally produce from indigestible fiber (like the fiber in fruits and vegetables), but plenty of people have gut damage that can make fiber difficult or impossible to digest.
Butyric acid has anti-inflammatory and immune-regulatory benefits in the gut, and it can affect the permeability of the intestine ("leaky gut"). That’s important, because gut inflammation and permeability are huge in autoimmune diseases (including the autoimmune components of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes). Butyrate is also an energy source for the colon, which sounds boring until you realize that it may help prevent colon cancer. There's also some evidence that it helps control feelings of hunger and fullness, through its effects on hormones produced in the gut.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid
Grass-fed (and only grass-fed!) butter is also rich in another type of fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA may have significant anti-obesity benefits, and you can read all about it here.
Butter is also just generally a great source of high-quality fat. Paleo in general is big on fat quality as much as fat quantity; nobody is advocating a high-fat diet based on canola oil! The calories in butter are almost entirely fat. Regular butter is about 82% fat and 18% water, proteins, and carbohydrates. Clarified butter is about 99% fat, with only a very tiny amount of anything else.
From a Paleo perspective, the fat in butter is a very high-quality food:
- Low in potentially inflammatory Omega-6 PUFA
- Moderately high in monounsaturated fat
- High in saturated fat
Yes, "high in saturated fat" counts as a benefit: it makes the butter stable for high-heat cooking, and as discussed above, saturated fat isn't actually the devil. Butter also contains a notable amount of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fat particularly helpful for low-carb diets or anyone who has trouble digesting fat (like people with gallbladder problems).
Summing it Up
Butter is easier to tolerate than most other forms of dairy, and clarifying it into ghee makes it even easier. It's a nice way to get the nutritional benefits of dairy foods with a very low dose of the carbohydrates and proteins that can make dairy problematic for some people. Of course, no one food is right for everyone and some people might still struggle even with ghee, but for most people, butter and ghee should be fine to cook with and eat.
And on top of being incredibly tasty, butter and ghee have some great health benefits. Clarified or not, butter is a high-quality cooking fat rich in Vitamin K2 and healthy fats that help reduce inflammation, improve gut health, and even protect against weight gain.