Love your Butter

by Catherine Haug, Dec 7, 2010

I’ve been wanting to do a series of tutorial posts on fats – both dietary and for other uses such as soap and lotions. This is a daunting task because to understand them fully, you have to be open to learning a bit of chemistry. And I know that is off-putting, but I’ll try to keep it simple. I introduce you to a few technical terms, and provide links to learn more about them.

All articles in this series have their own Topic (in the ‘Blog Post’ pull down on our home page): “Topics: Cat’s Fats.”

Butter is one of our most healthful dietary fats, despite being maligned for the last 40+ years, so I thought I’d start with that.

Butter vs Man-Made Fats

I was brought up on butter; margarine was not even considered, and tho I tried margarine as a young adult in the 1970s, I reverted to butter when I read a scientific article about the problem of trans-fats in margarine.

As early as 1956, scientists were starting to note a link between heart disease and margarine consumption. And it was not long after this that the problem was traced to the difference between natural cis-fats, and man-made trans-fats. But it was not until the late 1980s that the negative health implications of trans-fat consumption (from margarine and vegetable shortening) became public, and 2006 for mandatory trans-fat labeling to me implemented. (11)

Yet the general public still doesn’t fully grasp the horror inherent in eating man-made fats. To avoid trans fats, many margarines are now made by a different, even more dangerous process known as interesterification. See Wikipedia for more on interesterified fats (10).

This focus on man-made fats is, of course, complicated by widespread belief that saturated fats such as those in butter and all animal products are bad for the heart. But that belief is mistaken, based on a mis-interpretation of research findings.

Humans need all kinds of fats from both animal and plant sources, for proper functioning of cells, tissues and our immune system; for example:

  • saturated fats to strengthen and stabilize cell walls, and for antimicrobial ability;
  • mono-unsaturated fats (MUFA or omega-9) also for cell membrane fluidity, and blood-cholesterol balance; and
  • poly-unsaturated fats (PUFA or omega-3, omega-6) for cell membrane fluidity and proper immune function.

When these (and other nutrients) are consumed in proper balance, our bodies are healthy and vibrant.

Composition of Butter

NOTE: the relative amounts of the different fats and other nutrients depends upon many factors, including the breed of the dairy cow, the cow’s diet, and the season when the milk is produced.

Butter contains about (1):

  • 64% saturated fat,
  • 35% mono-unsaturated (MUFA),
  • less than 1% poly-unsaturated (PUFA).

It also contains other fat-soluble (lipid) substances that are important for health, including vitamins A, D, E and K2; lecithin; essential trace minerals including manganese, chromium, zinc, copper and selenium; iodine; and many other nutrients.(2)

Does it surprise you that butter’s fats are not 100% saturated? This is actually normal in a natural fat; poly-unsaturated seed oils like corn and soy contain a mix of saturated, MUFA and PUFA fats.

Butter’s saturated fats are rather unique among animal fats, but resemble that of coconut oil. Specifically, it contains high levels of short chain (up to 6 carbons) and medium-chain (6 – 12 carbons) fatty acids. Butyric acid (C4) gives butter its name. These special fats are notable for their health-promoting abilities (3):

  • antimicrobial,
  • anti-tumor,
  • liver support (especially the short-chain fats),
  • boost metabolism,
  • strengthen the immune system,
  • turn cell membrane receptors (such as insulin or adrenaline receptors) on and off (cell signaling).

These short and medium-chain fatty acids are not metabolised the same way as longer chain fats, because they are small enough to be absorbed directly into the bloodstream from the small intestine, and from there to the liver where they are metabolized.

The longer chain saturated fats must first be coupled with special proteins and cholesterol as chylomicrons for active transport through the intestinal wall, then carried to all the cells of the body for metabolic use.

The most prevalent poly-unsaturated fats in butter are linoleic acid (Omega-6) and linolenic acid (omega-3), which are also in flax seeds. Its most prevalent mono-unsaturated fat is oleic acid, which is also in olive oil. (1)

Unsaturated fats are longer chain fats (C16 and more), and are metabolized in the same manner as longer chain saturated fats.

To compare butter’s composition with other animal and vegetable fats, see:  Wikipedia: Fatty Acids (12) and Butterfat (13).

Different Types of Butter

Butter can be found in two forms: sweet (salted), and unsalted. Salt is added to sweet butter to give it a longer shelf life (salt has antimicrobial ability), and to bring out its flavors. Unsalted butter is best for baking; salted butter is favored by many for eating.

Commercial milk and butter comes, for the most part, from cows kept in confinement and fed a diet of GMO grain feed laced with herbicides and pesticides, which find their way into the cream. Butter from such cows has greatly reduced amounts of vitamins A, D, and E, and is lacking in nutrients that can only come from grass, such as CLA and vitamin K2. And it contains toxic substances from the cows’ diet, which tend to concentrate in the fatty cream/butter.

Commercial butter is made from pasteurized milk/cream, a process that destroys even more of the vitamins as well as the Wulzen anti-stiffness factor, and blocks absorption of many of the minerals from the original cream. (3)

Commercial organic butter has fewer toxins, but unless the cows are grass-fed, they lack the same nutrients lacking in their non-organic counterparts.

Butter from local, pasture-fed dairy cows can be far more healthful than commercial milk, and is usually HTST pasteurized rather than ultra-pasteurized. But of course, raw butter from local, grass-fed cows is the most healthful.

For more on the healthfulness of butter

Check out Why Butter is Better (3), by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, PhD on the Weston A. Price Foundation website for lots more on the health benefits of butter.

Making Butter

When made from whole milk, the process yields both butter and buttermilk; when made from just the cream, you get butter but very little buttermilk. You can culture the milk/cream before making butter, or you can skip that step. Culturing adds flavor and nutrients, so I highly recommend it.

1. Culturing is done by allowing lactic-acid forming bacteria (such as acidophilus and bifidus) to convert milk sugar (lactose) to lactic acid, which ‘sours’ the cream so that it will coagulate. The length of time it is allowed to culture affects the nutrient content and flavor of the butter. See Butter Through the Ages: Ripening to Convert Milk Sugars to Lactic Acid (5)

2. The mixture is churned to separate the fat from the watery portion, and to cause the fat globules to form butter. No one knows exactly what happens to make butter different from cream, but Butter Through the Ages: Chemistry: Inverting the Original Cream Emulsion (6) offers a good approximation. See also Ways of Churning Butter (7) for different types of historic and modern churns.

3. Water is added to wash the butter while churning continues.

4. Once the butter is formed and washed, it is then worked, to remove as much moisture as possible, since moisture can allow mold to grow. Salt can be added, if desired, during the ‘working’ stage. See Butter Through the Ages: Working: Smoothing out the Bubbles. (8)

5. Finally the butter is shaped and chilled, then pressed into molds, if desired.

For an excellent tutorial with photos, see (4). See Butter Through the Ages: Overview for a nice overview of the process using pasteurized cream (9).


  1. General Chemistry Online, on fat content of butter (
  2. Mercola: Why is Butter Better? (
  3. WAPF:  Why Butter is Better (
  4. How to Make Butter (
  5. Butter Through the Ages: Ripening to Convert Milk Sugars to Lactic Acid
  6. Butter Through the Ages: Chemistry: Inverting the Original Cream Emulsion (
  7. Butter Through the Ages: Ways of Churning Butter (
  8. See Butter Through the Ages: Working: Smoothing out the Bubbles(
  9. Butter Through the Ages: Overview of the Buttermaking Process (
  10. Wikipedia on Interesterified Fat (
  11. on History of Trans Fats (
  12. Wikipedia on Fatty Acids (
  13. Wikipedia on Butterfat (

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