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

Is All Butter Created Equal?

butterThe 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. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. What about unpasteurized?

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

    Chris wrote on August 5th, 2010
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. Where can one get grass fed butter in Canada ?

    Luc Chene wrote on November 8th, 2010
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. 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
  16. 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
  17. 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
  18. Very interesting! I’ve been a fan of Kerrygold for a while now, as soon as I tasted it I was amazed by the proper buttery taste, so it’s good to know that my taste buds aren’t letting me down.
    Incidently I live in the UK, so Ireland’s not too far…but if I found something more local I’d definitely try it.
    One question though…what’s the difference between spreadable and the more solid variety?

    Emily H wrote on June 18th, 2011
  19. Another note on the color of ghee:
    – Buffalo milk ghee will be whiter in color even if grass fed.
    – All ghee will vary in color due to seasons. During the summer cows have more opportunity to graze, so the ghee will be more yellow from more chlorophyll in their systems. In the winter it will be less yellow.

    Pashmina wrote on July 17th, 2011
  20. KerryGold is sold at Costco.

    melody wrote on July 25th, 2011
  21. My Family is very skeptical when it comes to the advantages (mostly because of taste) of Grass Fed products. But when I introduced them to grass fed butter, they unanimously agreed that this butter is better. Now if only I can convince them the Strip Steaks are better to!

    Thanks for this article.

    A Scott wrote on September 25th, 2011
  22. Totally agree in the butter…love it.However I am astonished and disgusted to see that you can get my beloved Kerrygold Irish butter in the US cheaper than I can get it here in Ireland.

    Grainne wrote on September 27th, 2011
  23. Gentlemen,
    Kindly provide us with an idea of all your products/activities.

    Thank You / Best Regards

    Said Challah

    Said Challah wrote on November 6th, 2011
  24. Watch out for Anchor butter. Not all Anchor is the same. I went to Metro Mart, a Costco-like place where I’m situated, and was about to pick up a 5kg block of butter to use over the next few months with my neighbor when he spotted that it was only 89% milk derivatives and that there was a hunk of it that was processed engineered oil mixed in with it.

    So, even with brands you know and trust, look at what they’re throwing in there because who knows who signed off on that particular product.

    Grog the inhaler wrote on December 14th, 2011
  25. Hey healthy people:) I am a huge fan of butter and I usually buy the Organic Valle seasonal pastured butter that Mark mentioned. I had a feeling it wasn’t 100% grass fed so I called! Bummer, it certainly isn’t. So go with the other choices when possible. :)

    Kristen Buchanan wrote on December 21st, 2011
  26. Kerrygold: “One question though…what’s the difference between spreadable and the more solid variety?”

    When my local Publix switched from bar KerryGold to the tubs/”more spreadable” kind — BOY did the taste ever go downhill! I complained to Kerrygold, but they say it’s the same stuff. (Doesn’t taste it! {frown} And how could it be? If it’s *different*, it’s different, yes?)

    Alas, COstco only carries the bars of worth-its-weight-in-gold Kerrygold (salted) butter(around here in the US South anyway) around St Patrick’s Day — otherwise they don’t carry it. Kerrygold did send me a chunk of their Gouda-style cheese and oh MAN! was it delicious!

    I’ve been harassing my Costco to try to get them to carry it year-round.

    Elenor wrote on January 20th, 2012
  27. Organic Valley pasture butter is not 100% grass-fed unfortunately. They just sent me this response:

    All our cows have access to pasture when seasonally appropriate and to stored forages when fresh grasses are not available. The cows will also receive a supplement of 100% organic grains, these grains include corn, barley, soybeans, oats, field peas and flax.

    Thank you again, and if I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.

    Sincerely,
    Lori Potter
    Organic Valley / Organic Prairie
    Consumer Relations Associate
    CROPP Cooperative
    lori.potter@organicvalley.coop
    1-888-444-6455 ext.3483
    LaFarge, WI 54639

    Ryan wrote on January 23rd, 2012
  28. Just a note on butter color. We might be overlooking the cow in this dscussion. My mother always said, “If you want to make a yellow cake, get butter from a Guernsey cow, and if you want to make a white cake, get butter from a Jersey cow. That was the VERY old days in the American Southeast, when all cows were grass-fed (and hand-milked). I don not know how the breed of cow affects nutrition, but it does indeed affect the color of butter.

    Bethie wrote on February 3rd, 2012
  29. I’m speaking out of ignorance here so please help me out if possible. Is Land O’ Lakes Butter satisfactory? If not, why?

    Mike wrote on February 18th, 2012
    • Land O’ Lakes Butter is made from Grain fed cows, so it’s not grass fed or pastured. The cows didn’t get to roam and ate mostly corn.

      Johnny wrote on October 9th, 2012
  30. I make Organic, grass-fed ghee that I make sure is of the highest quality! You can check out my ghee at http://www.facebook.com/giosghee . Thanks for the awesome article!

    Gio wrote on March 14th, 2012
  31. Does anyone knows where to get grass-fed butter in Canada ? I would like so much to get the Kerrygold butter !

    Luc Chene wrote on March 15th, 2012
  32. Your link to buy Anchor Butter on-line yields a different brand. I found Anchor Butter on-line sales through their website at http://www.anchorbutter.com, there’s a link halfway down the home page. They also are on Twitter @anchorbutterusa.

    Nathan M wrote on April 23rd, 2012
  33. So I’ve been using fake butter for years because it has fewer calories in it but lately I have been reading things about it not being healthy and its basically plastic etc and now I’m wanting to eat real wholesome foods…I live in a town where its mainly Wal-Mart and CostCo and big stores like that. Where the hell can I find good grass fed organic butter???

    Kayla Rogers wrote on May 15th, 2012
    • Trader Joes, Whole Foods, or online.

      Johnny wrote on October 9th, 2012
  34. I bought elle and vire unsalted butter. Is it good?

    Srinivas Kari wrote on June 28th, 2012
  35. Anyone have experience with Kalona organic grass fed butter on Tropical Traditions site made by Amish and Mennonite farmers?

    Peter Griffiths wrote on July 30th, 2012
  36. I’ve noticed a lot of comments claiming certain brands are “grass-fed” or “pasture raised.” I just want to point out that, as Mark said in this article (http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-differences-between-grass-fed-beef-and-grain-fed-beef/#axzz23l8i6uBr), most cows (even grain-fed) start out on grass for until they are around 700 lbs, and that you can still feed cows grain if they live in a pasture. So if ask a farmer, “are these cows grass-fed,” they could technically respond yes, even if they are also fed grains.

    Chema wrote on August 17th, 2012
  37. Coming from England I couldn’t believe how bad the butter is in the US – simply put it’s just rancid. I buy the Lurpak or Kerrygold or President – Challenge butter is good too but it’s not grassfed. These brands are fine. All butter needs to be wrapped in foil as the wax paper doesn’t keep it fresh. I had a question about Mark’s pyramid which I hope he or someone can answer. From reading his book it looks like most calories actually come from fat (Kelly Korg’s diet diary) but on his pyramid he says the bulk of calories come from meat and other animal proteins. Or have I missed something?

    Jessica Isles wrote on September 3rd, 2012
  38. Oh you poor Americans! My sympathy goes out to everyone who has to search out grass-fed beef and dairy. In the UK it generally isn’t a problem as grass is cheaper than grain.

    With so much land it surprises me that you don’t graze your cattle, surely it would be easier? There must be a reason but as a Brit I don’t know what it is.

    Jessica, you mention the pyramid, I know that Mark has revised this so that Veg is larger than meat, but I have always assumed it was based on the volume of food, not the overall calories, but that’s just my interpretation.

    PrimalV wrote on September 13th, 2012
    • I’m from the UK and have been wondering this myself. I’m under the impression that Irish beef is fed mainly on grass and silage but wasn’t so sure about British. Is it the case that most British beef is pastured (weather permitting) then fed on silage? Even Marks and Spencer note on their minced beef that it’s raised on a grass AND grain diet so i dont hold much hope for other suppliers not using grain. Any comments or who’s best in the UK for grass fed would be appreciated. Cheers

      greg wrote on September 13th, 2012
  39. Does anyone know that if “Westgold butter” made by Westland Milk Products is made from grass-fed cows?

    Lunpard wrote on October 7th, 2012
    • Westgold brand. Advertising says grass fed but you should email them for confirmation. It most likely is since it’s from New Zealand.

      Ask if the cows were grass fed their whole lives, or if they also eat grain.

      Johnny wrote on October 9th, 2012
  40. Any opinion about buying a little extra (when you travel 3 hours round trip to purchase organic/grass-fed items) butter and freezing some for later?

    Penn wrote on October 20th, 2012

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