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. Hey, can someone help me. I live in Norway, been trying to get hold of this super butter for a few days. None in the local stores, or health stores.

    This is closest I’ve found so far in Norway

    http://www.tinepamenyen.no/produkter/smor/tine-klaret-sm%C3%B8r-4-liter

    Is this it, the same as what you guys are talking about?

    Mariuslol wrote on November 5th, 2012
  2. tara wrote on November 21st, 2012
  3. Im getting pissed. I just bought 50$ worth of Anchor butter from new zealand (supposebly the best better around) made a long distance call to new zealand (im from canada) and was asking how to process was made and when i got to the part asking him if the ‘end’ product of the butter is unpastuerized a.k.a raw, he just didnt know what to answer and was dodging his words and slightly changing subject, i probably repeated over 5 times (in different ways) and in the end i was the one who convienced myself that it was raw, so out of excitement and impulse i went ahead and bought the 4 pounds of butter. Now im left dissapointed to hear that this is clariefied butter? or possibly worse, Ghee butter which the butter goes high tempatures to make it. Wtf. i dont know anymore what to think.

    The best way is to make your own damn butter. I dont want to sound like i live in denial but, you know what they say.. If you want something done right do it yourself.

    Its a pity though :(

    Jesse wrote on November 24th, 2012
  4. Thanks for the clarity! I wish it was easier to find grass fed! I’m trying out the bullet proof style coffee which is grass fed butter and coconut oil in your coffee in the morning instead of milk. Its good!

    Marina wrote on November 26th, 2012
  5. You forgot to compare price and convenience :(

    I can see you’ve made up your mind before this article was ever written.

    Ryan wrote on January 10th, 2013
  6. anchor butter is not produced in new zealand anymore they moved their whole operation to the uk a few years ago so i would bet its made from grain fed herds now.

    digger wrote on May 15th, 2013
  7. Hi Mark and primal blueprint advocates,
    I was wondering whether the benefits of eating grass-fed butter and all the healthy sources of saturated fat are still achieved whilst eating grains? The thing is, I mostly just eat an unprocessed, balanced diet and am an endurance athlete (middle distance running). I want to adopt a mostly primal or paleo diet, but even my relatively clean eating isn’t tolerated well by my family.I currently don’t eat any butter because the stuff my family buys is grain-fed and processed. Also, do you think training in ketosis and then carb-loading for races is a good idea? Or, as an endurance athlete, it is best that I maintain a moderate-carb diet mostly from sweet potato and fruits/veg?

    Jonny S wrote on June 6th, 2013
  8. New information out and available that is stopping many people (like me) from buying Kerrygold! It’s not 100% grass fed. It is almost 90% grass fed, and supplemented with feed that includes soy and corn that is GMO! Now, I am on the hunt for a truly grass fed AND organic butter. It’s harder than it would seem. I have not tried this one yet, but just contacted Humboldt Creamery and left a message with a rep to call me back so I can confirm the apparent position they take of having cows that are grass fed year round AND the butter is also organic.

    http://www.fosterfarmsdairy.com/?p=175

    Lisa wrote on July 22nd, 2013
  9. Why I stopped buying kerrygold butter:
    http://hopecentric.com/why-i-stopped-buying-kerrygold-butter/

    Lisa wrote on July 22nd, 2013
  10. Mark,

    How does the fatty acid profile and nutrient density of buffalo butter compare to cow butter if all other things are equal(e.g., grass-fed)?

    Thanks

    Tim wrote on July 28th, 2013
  11. Sorry I don’t have time to read all the comments but Anchor have moved their production to the UK, so check you’re getting the NZ stuff if you plan to buy in bulk – I’ve linked to an article from The Grocer in my name.

    This seems to have happened late in 2012 and means Anchor here is now no different to most commercial non-organic butters, and not 100% grass fed.

    Patrick wrote on July 29th, 2013
  12. I wonder why pasteurization is never mentioned? Wouldn’t it be more important to look for raw butter first? Whether it’s grass or grain fed, butter processed at very high temperatures lacks all the important enzymes and its natural fat structure. A truly better butter will be both – raw and grass-fed.

    Tata wrote on August 24th, 2013
    • Many places, sadly, don’t legally allow raw milk for human consumption.

      Zen wrote on October 25th, 2013
  13. For example: “The Wulzen or “anti-stiffness” factor is a nutrient unique to butter. Dutch researcher Wulzen found that it protects against calcification of the joints–degenerative arthritis–as well as hardening of the arteries, cataracts and calcification of the pineal gland. Unfortunately this vital substance is destroyed during pasteurization.”

    Tata wrote on August 24th, 2013
  14. Hi, I am trying to find out if there really is any difference between Green Pastures butterfat oil and grass fed butter like KerryGold? The Butterfat oil sells for $60.00 a bottle which is quite expensive if it is really the same as grass fed butter or perhaps Ghee made from grass fed butter. Thanks for any help clarifying this matter.

    Mary O'Reilly wrote on October 21st, 2013
  15. I was going to print this for a family member that has a bulk food store. It may be placed inside the store for others to read. Is that ok? Thank you!

    Kristie wrote on December 3rd, 2013
  16. I have an allergy to whey so I’m pretty sure I can’t have butter but your description of ghee makes me wonder if I can have it. Does anyone have a definitive answer…does the process of making ghee actually remove the whey or just some?

    Vee wrote on December 22nd, 2013
  17. Anchor butter from New Zealand is from the dairy co-op frontera. Fonterra dairy farms (my friends who have worked on these farms have confirmed this) do fed their cattle grains depending on the time of the year (ie in winter). So dairy products made from their milk are not 100% grass fed. Anchor butter is also NOT organic…. Just something to think about! Their marketing strategies are convincing and have proved many a time to be absolute rubbish! ;)

    Sophie wrote on February 28th, 2014
  18. I usually buy Kerrygold. But my boyfriend’s mom just pinged me about a local pastured supplier near her home. 10 lbs of local, pastured spring butter coming my way soon! For about 4.50/lb. Pretty good given that Kerrygold around here is about $4 per 1/2 pound.

    Melissa wrote on March 24th, 2014
  19. The link for :
    pasture feeding leads to dairy CLA levels 3-5 times that of grain-fed cattle (PDF)
    leads to an empty page.

    Luc wrote on March 30th, 2014
  20. Just found ANCHOR grass-fed butter from New Zealand at The Fresh Market,$2.99 for an 8oz pack…awesome!

    nathan wrote on July 25th, 2014
  21. Question:

    If I am unable to buy grass-fed butter due to cost and location (Canada), is it okay to eat plenty of grain-fed butter (organic, preferably)?

    Or should I be eating less of it because it is not as healthy as it should be?

    I don’t want to slather butter onto everything if the pros are not there ie less vitamins etc. I also don’t want to consume a lot if the negatives add up over time ie a high omega 6:3 ratio.

    Should I be worried about consuming too much non grass-fed dairy/butter?

    NP wrote on November 6th, 2014

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