Is Butter Back? See the Research.

Nov 2, 2016
Is Butter Back? See the Research.

Butter: a simple, delicious, popular family favorite. In 2014, it was reported that butter consumption was at a 40-year record high. You may have seen one of the many headlines this year asking, "Is butter back?" For me, it’s definitely worth asking. As health professionals, we know that small changes are the most effective changes. We also know that a little liberalization in a healthy eating plan is what’s most likely to keep people following that plan. So let’s explore what the science has to say.

What do we know about butter’s effect on health?

The conversation around dietary fat – dairy fat in particular – has changed from one of avoidance to possible acceptance. Emerging evidence has shown that not all fats are the same, and we simply can’t group all saturated fats together. The good news about dairy fat is that it may not be associated with the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and it may actually reduce the risk of CVD. Whole-fat dairy may even benefit the extremely popular and effective DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. So maybe your beloved butter dish has a place on the table after all.

Why this study?

As health professionals, we make recommendations based on the evidence we have. But until recently, we’ve lacked much research on butter and long-term health. Knowing that many people were using butter, it seemed natural for researchers to dive into the topic, and since heart disease and saturated fat research has set the butter recommendations in the past, that was a great area to explore.

What are the results?

In this meta-analysis, researchers reviewed butter’s effect on all-cause mortality, CVD that includes coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke, and Type 2 diabetes.The final search included nine publications from 15 different studies, all prospective cohorts or randomized clinical trials. Participants totaled more than 600,000 individuals from the United States as well as Europe. The amount of butter was set to 1 tablespoon per day, about 14 grams.

The researchers found eating butter was:

  • “Weakly associated” with all-cause mortality
  • Not associated with CVD, CHD or stroke
  • Associated with reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes

These results all point to keeping butter in the diet at a reasonable amount. Remember that this limited amount, 1 tablespoon, has mostly a neutral effect. In the discussion, the researchers concluded that these findings promote looking at an entire healthy eating pattern versus just recommending specific nutrients. That’s something health professionals are already stressing, and a key component of the 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). Though more research on butter’s benefits is needed, I think this is good news. It parallels with my mantra as a registered dietitian nutritionist that all foods fit, and that it’s important to offer flexibility in a healthy eating pattern.

What’s next?

Keep in mind that these studies haven’t effectively moved the needle on saturated fat when it comes to the DGA recommendation that Americans limit their saturated fats to just 10 percent of their daily calories. We’ll have to wait for that. But with a tremendous amount of new information about dairy fats, it will be interesting to see what’s in the 2020-2025 DGAs. For now, I’m just not going to feel guilty the next time I add a pat of butter to my cherished family recipes.

Learn more about dairy and the dietary guidelines. Explore our favorite recipes with dairy.