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 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.


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. 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
  2. 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
  3. KerryGold is sold at Costco.

    melody wrote on July 25th, 2011
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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.

    Lori Potter
    Organic Valley / Organic Prairie
    Consumer Relations Associate
    CROPP Cooperative
    1-888-444-6455 ext.3483
    LaFarge, WI 54639

    Ryan wrote on January 23rd, 2012
  11. 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
  12. 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

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