Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
3 Aug

Is All Butter Created Equal?

The embrace (some might say exaltation) of butter is, in some respects, what sets the Primal eating plan apart from strict paleo. It is essentially pure animal fat with only minor traces of dairy proteins and sugars remaining, and for that reason I consider it a worthwhile staple. But, to answer the question posed in the title, not all butter is created equal. Most of us are in agreement that the nutritional content of the animal’s flesh depends on the content of its diet, and the same goes for butter.

We’ve covered similar ground with other foods – olive oil, cheese, chocolate, to name a few – but butter’s special. A quick glance around the forum and other online paleo/Primal/real food communities reveals that people are mad for butter. Perhaps it’s because we’re subject to a steady barrage of anti-butter propaganda from day one on this earth; perhaps it’s due to the fact that the stuff tastes like heaven and goes with nearly everything. Whatever the reason, butter knowledge is important.

Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed

The eternal battle rages on. While the grass-fed camp may be outnumbered, they are plucky, pugnacious fighters with superior armament, training, and tactics. Once they finish off grain-fed butter in Spartans-at-Thermopylae fashion, I expect them to make short work of margarine. Here’s why it’s so lopsided:

Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) Content

CLA is a funny fatty acid. It’s actually a trans-fat, but it’s a good, naturally occurring one. Instead of a group of candle wax makers creating trans-fats in industrial vats by hydrogenating cottonseed oil into disgusting, technically edible faux-butter, the special digestive systems of grass-fed ruminants produce CLA internally. The resulting trans-fat – which has been linked to superior heart health, suppression of tumors, reduced belly fat (although in pigs, I’m not sure that’s what we’re after!), and greater fat loss in the obese and overweight – pops up 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 (PDF).

Winner: Grass-fed Butter

Vitamin Content

We’re drawn to colorful things, especially foods. Bright berries, verdant greens, multicolored fruits and peppers – these are the naturally occurring foods with the most phytonutrients. In fact, the actual dyes responsible for providing color to vegetation, like the blue in blueberry, are also usually antioxidants. Funny how that works out, eh? The same is true for butter. You ever notice how grass-fed butter actually looks like butter? 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 (think carrot, think orange) 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. Grain-fed? From the study I just linked, even back in 1933 they understood that “the oil cakes and cereals in common use are incapable of bringing about this result” of yellow, vitamin-rich butter.

Vitamin K2, in case you weren’t aware, appears to reduce, prevent, or even counteract arterial plaque, and it helps the body use calcium correctly and effectively. Vitamin K2 is another vital component of grass-fed butter. As Dr. Weston Price observed, only cows subsisting on fresh green grass produced butter imbued with significant levels of the all-important “Activator X,” which most people agree is vitamin K2. 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 at all (PDF).

Winner: Grass-fed Butter

Fatty Acid Composition

Whether it’s grass-fed or grain-fed, butter is rich in saturated (about 2/3) and monounsaturated (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. Yes, equal amounts. A balance. Grain-fed cows, on the other hand, produce a ratio tilted heavily toward omega 6. It’s true that we’re talking about relatively miniscule amounts of polyunsaturated fats here, but I prefer the balanced ratio. And if you’re putting away as much butter as I can, those insignificant amounts of omega 6 can begin to add up.

Winner: Grass-fed Butter

Flavor

Flavor is usually a subjective determination. What tastes better is entirely a matter of personal opinion, right? Not in the case of butter. Grass-fed butter tastes objectively better using any parameter. Creaminess? Smooth, yellow grass-fed butter can be eaten and enjoyed like candy. Richness? Grain-fed is weak and insipid in comparison. Mouth feel? Grass-fed coats the interior (in a pleasant way), while grain-fed comes off as watery and unnatural.

Winner: Grass-fed Butter

All that said, grain-fed butter is still a better option than conventional cooking fats, like vegetable oil or margarine. I still request restaurant food to be cooked in butter, completely aware that it’s probably white as a ghost and totally grain-fed. The saturated fat in regular butter isn’t any less stable.

Grass-fed isn’t as tough to find as you might think, though. And even if it’s more expensive, it’s still cheaper than shelling out the dough for exclusively grass-fed meat. In fact, for those of you who can’t regularly eat pastured meat, eating lean cuts of conventional meat cooked in a quality grass-fed butter is a great compromise.

Watch out for these brands near you:

A favorite, fairly easy-to-find brand is Kerrygold, an Irish dairy whose cows are all pastured and whose butter is incredible. I get mine for $2.69 at Trader Joe’s, but I’ve seen it in basic and specialty grocery stores, too (albeit for slightly higher prices). Look for the silver foil (unsalted) and gold foil (salted) packages.

Anchor butter is another tasty one. It hails from New Zealand, land of reliably grass-fed lamb, and I’ve seen it at Whole Foods for a reasonable price. If you can’t find it there, you could always order online in bulk. Just freeze the extras.

Organic Valley has a seasonal pastured, cultured, salted butter that usually appears in spring, which is when the grass is at its greenest. I’ve had it a few times. It’s good and a bit tangy, and it comes in a green foil package. Skip the regular Organic Valley stuff, which gets some grain.

Check 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.

Terminology

Learn the slang that’ll help you blend in with the cool kids at the next Weston A. Price Foundation meet-up.

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? I’ve no idea, and the rich color isn’t a reliable indicator since the color could come from the browned milk solids. Anyone know for sure?

There are clear winners and losers in life. Grass-fed butter wins handily and grain-fed loses. There’s not much more to say other than get out there and find yourself a decent source of grass-fed butter!

Thanks for reading, everyone, and Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. nice post. I do like the kerrygold. I am BOYCOTTING Organic Valley even though I love their pasture butter. (Because they recently forbid their dairy suppliers to sell raw milk on the side- forcing them to either lose most of their OV income or cut off the local communities of their precious raw milk supply). I just ran out of my supply of amish roll butter I bought from my old co-op in KY and the store conventional butter is so bland.
    Time for a trip to Jungle Jim’s to see what butters he brings in. Too bad he doesn’t carry Snowville’s Cream!! I love making my own butter. I used to get Snowville from Whole Foods but I am boycotting them as well

    NourishedMom wrote on August 4th, 2010
    • Another Jungle Jim fan. My kids love to spend the afternoon there.

      JenCat wrote on August 4th, 2010
  2. Are we talking about cows that live and eat on pastures *12 months* per year, or do they eat silage about 6 months per year (late Fall, Winter, and early Spring)?

    Silage (from Wikipedia):
    Includes corn (maize) or sorghum or other cereals, using the entire green plant (not just the grain). Silage can be made from many field crops, and special terms may be used depending on type (oatlage for oats, haylage for alfalfa – but see below for different UK use of the term haylage).

    Glenn wrote on August 4th, 2010
  3. For those in New England, Kate’s Butter — a Maine product with fairly wide distribution — is mostly grassfed from about April through about November, when the cows get put on silage. (You can tell by the color, which they do not alter.) It’s quite good, considerably cheaper than Kerrygold, and available in many supermarkets.

    John R wrote on August 4th, 2010
    • I LOVE Kate’s!. Super creamy and tasty, and semi-local for me.

      Katie wrote on August 4th, 2010
    • So good to know! I made myself buy the Organic Valley pastured butter and it’s no where near as good as Kate’s. It tastes greasy w no other depth. I’m switching back.

      Dory wrote on November 15th, 2015
  4. Ooooo this is getting me really excited to try the stash of Kerrygold butter in my fridge that I asked my mom to bring from Trader Joe’s the last time she visited. I had been saving it for special garnishing purposes but now that I see all of the health benefits I’m tempted to make it my staple butter (instead of my local grocery store’s $4.39/lb. organic, but grain fed, butter).

    I seem to remember large tubs of organic ghee available at Whole Foods for about $14 – but not sure if it’s grass fed. Is there such a thing as grass fed ghee here in the States?

    Thanks, Mark, for tackling the issue of which butter is better! :)

    Family Grokumentarian wrote on August 4th, 2010
  5. Oooo I just saw the “pureindianfoods” comments. I will definitely be ordering up some grass fed organic ghee. (Maybe even be a little devious and order some for Christmas gifts for my saturated-fat-avoiding parents and inlaws? :) )

    Family Grokumentarian wrote on August 4th, 2010
  6. This is a little off-topic but I wanted to ask all you low-carbers: aren’t you worried about overworking your adrenals while your body is running on fat for fuel? I’m concerned that in a year or two you all will have lowered metabolisms, illnesses, and damaged thyroids.

    anonymous wrote on August 4th, 2010
    • My own experience is 3 years + without any issues.

      Dave, RN wrote on August 4th, 2010
    • That does not happen to everybody, only those with not so good adrenals. I have a bad one unfortunately.

      anand srivastava wrote on August 20th, 2010
    • Actually, I damaged my thyroid and my adrenals on a high-grain diet. I’ve been primal going on two years and I’m actually getting better.

      piper wrote on September 4th, 2010
      • coconut oil used daily also helps repair the thyroid..as well as avoiding ALL soy products. Iodine rich foods like chlorella keeps the thyroid functioning well. I had hyothyroid for 6 years till I repaired it myself (with blood tests to prove it)..
        Ive been well for 6 years now.

        melody wrote on July 25th, 2011
  7. I definitely say if you can get your hands on some raw grass fed cream, make your own cultured butter at home! Just leave the cream on the counter for a few hours in a glass jar and then shake it up for about 10 minutes. Viola! Butter.

    Of course, you can make it easily in your blender or food processor, too. But shaking the jar is way more primal. 😉

    Elizabeth wrote on August 4th, 2010
  8. Ghee – prefect choice for the lactose or casein intolerant!

    Pure Indian Foods ghee – grass fed

    Ancient Organics – grass fed – very rich color – from Straus Creamery butter – priced accordingly

    detailed review of various brands:
    freeradicalfederation.com/Ghee_Comparison_Table

    ATA member wrote on August 4th, 2010
  9. I’m a HUGE advocate for grass fed anything over grain fed crap. Grass fed butter and other animal products not only have superior nutrition to it’s grain fed counterpart, but the taste is absolutely outstanding. Think of it this way: if the animal eats a diet high in grasses which all contain the energy from the sun then when we eat that animal we will get the plentiful benefits of the grasses, which we can’t actually digest ourselves. One thing I still would like to mention is that “good fat” is still fat in that it has the same number of calories per gram as “bad fat” it will add on the pounds if you overindulge.

    Susan the home workouts chick wrote on August 4th, 2010
  10. With a 400-degree smoke point, the sattvic, organic, pastured, grass-fed ghee from Pure Indian Foods is at once a versatile, precious and densely nutritious food.

    Ren wrote on August 4th, 2010
  11. lol thats a coincidence…i just recently got hold of some raw grass fed jersey butter! AMAZING stuff. I can detect the slight sweetness of it, so i know its not cultured…but i’d love to try a raw cultured butter some time! i adore fermented stuff

    reamz wrote on August 4th, 2010
  12. What about unpasteurized?

    Zohar wrote on August 5th, 2010
  13. pureindianfoods ghee is amazing.
    Smjor is my favorite butter,then Kerrygold or the brand grasslandbeef has

    Chris wrote on August 5th, 2010
  14. This post prompted me to look for Kerrygold butter. Their website told me that my local Market Basket carries it and so I bought some last week.

    Holy cow is it awesome! It tastes like no butter I’ve ever had. I’m inventing things to eat with butter now. And I think I’m going to try Kurt Harris’ suggestion of butter in coffee in place of cream. I tried it awhile ago and it was fine, but coffee+Kerrygold is sure to be a winner.

    C. August wrote on August 11th, 2010
  15. Can I find any of these great butters/Ghee in Ottawa? I will be there. I am thinking whether to take the Indian Ghee with me or buy it there. Obviously the cost also matters. Cost of ghee is about 6$/Kg. Anything more than 3.5$/lb would be too expensive.

    anand srivastava wrote on August 20th, 2010
  16. Where can one get grass fed butter in Canada ?

    Luc Chene wrote on November 8th, 2010
  17. All butter are not equal. Ask facts such as were cows on pasture or fed hay inside the barn? Did cows had the access to the pasture? Even breed of cows has effect on the fatty acid composition of butter.

    http://nutraprointl.com/2010/01/27/grass-fed-butter-oil-2/

    Rex wrote on November 13th, 2010
  18. Yay Nourished Mom! You said what I was going to say…I too am boycotting Organic Valley because of their bullying tactics towards the dairies that provide precious Raw Milk. I don’t know about the Whole Foods boycott though, so please enlighten me. I am desperately trying to find a retail location for a ghee that is supposed to be even better than Pure Indian Foods, the Ancient Organics line. It is ungodly expensive online so I’m trying to find a retail place in the Pacific Northwest so I can save on the horrendous shipping costs on the Ancient Organics site. I would like to try the Snowville cream, I’ll look for it at WF next time, see if it’s carried in the PNW.

    Mamie wrote on January 12th, 2011
  19. Ghee is THE oil that Egyptians use. It’s available everywhere around here in huge cans usually. Because in Egypt cattle fattening with grains is used by all producers of dairy, I doubt any of this ghee is grass-fed. You have to get to families in rural areas of Egypt to get grass-fed.

    I buy imported butter from New Zealand and it has that amazing yellow color. Local butter is white. I had no idea this different indicated diet, thanks for the info!!

    Yasmine wrote on May 24th, 2011
  20. I have been curious about Kerri Gold. Now I know the deal. The label doesn’t say that its grass fed.

    Paleo Josh wrote on June 2nd, 2011
    • They may have changed their label, I just checked my stash if Kerrygold. It says it plane as day across the top in an arc over the grass eating cow.

      Chris Johnson wrote on November 30th, 2011
  21. Quality of Butter/Ghee or butter oil depends on Cow’s diet.
    Cows fed on lush green fresh grass in the pasture have the highest level of CLA, Omega-3, beta-carotene, vitamins E and k in the milk.
    it takes about 26 days after cows are turned to the pasture before CLA is maximum in the milk.
    For more information click below:
    http://nutraprointl.com/2011/05/08/high-vitamin-butter-oil-is-healthy/

    Rex wrote on June 17th, 2011

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!