What Is Butter?
Butter is a dairy product made from the proteins and fats found in milk and cream. In the U.S., most butter is cow milk-based, but butter also comes from many other sources such as milk from sheep, goats, buffalo, and yaks.
Manufacturers and home chefs make butter by churning milk or cream to separate fat from the buttermilk. They also sometimes add salt and food coloring.
Nondairy "butters" like peanut butter, apple butter, and cocoa butter are not butter in the literal sense but do resemble butter in consistency.
Some studies hint at links between high-fat dairy products like butter and lower chances of obesity, diabetes, and heart problems. Still, remember that butter is high in calories and saturated fat.
While butter is often dismissed as a universally unhealthy ingredient, scientists have debated its health benefits for decades. After all, butter of all varieties is high in fat because, by definition, it's made of milk fat. But there's more to this common kitchen ingredient than its fat content.
Butter Nutrition Information
One tablespoon of unsalted butter contains:
- 102 calories
- 12 grams of fat
- 0 grams of carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, and protein
Butter is a source of:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
Types of Butter
Butter comes in many forms that can be used for different purposes.
Grass-fed butter offers some health benefits to counteract the health risks it poses. It appears to have lower levels of saturated fats and more unsaturated fats than standard butter. This is because grass-fed butter is made from the milk of cows that are allowed to graze instead of being fed high-grain diets. Studies show that consuming grass-fed butter in moderation may have more benefits and fewer risks than consuming standard butter.
A 1-tablespoon serving of grass-fed butter contains:
- Calories: 102
- Protein: Less than 1 gram
- Fat: 12 grams
- Carbohydrates: Less than 1 gram
- Fiber: Less than 1 gram
- Sugar: Less than 1 gram
Grass-fed butter is a rich source of:
- Vitamin K
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Conjugated linoleic acid
- Saturated fats
Grass-fed butter is also a great source of vitamin A. This vitamin has been connected to a possible lower risk of conditions like cataracts, diarrhea, measles, and breast cancer.
Regular butter can be whipped using nitrogen gas in order to add volume. Whipped butter is best for spreading and should not be used in recipes. The density is different, and recipes won't turn out the same.
This type of butter contains around 40% less milk fat. Fat from cow's milk is replaced with water and gelatin. Because this type of butter has more water in it, you shouldn't use it to replace regular butter in baked goods or for pan-frying food.
Clarified butter (ghee)
You can make clarified butter, or ghee, at home by separating melted butter from the milk solids and water. When you melt butter in a pan, remove the frothy white part that separates on top. Then pour off the clear butter, and throw away the milk solids left at the bottom.
Ghee has a rich, nutty flavor and is often used in Indian cooking. Its high smoke point makes it well-suited for frying and sautéing foods at high heat.
Margarine vs. Butter
Butter comes in many forms, but margarine is not one of them. Both are yellow, available as sticks or spreads, and used for cooking and baking. But when you start to break it down, margarine and butter are made of different ingredients and provide different health benefits.
Butter is made from heavy cream. It contains higher levels of saturated fat, which can lead to several risks. Margarine is made from vegetable oils. Here's how the fat in margarine and butter compare:
Margarine's "good" fats. Margarine's vegetable oils contain unsaturated fats, which are divided into polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. When used as a replacement for saturated fat, they help lower LDL cholesterol—the "bad" cholesterol that clogs arteries.
Unsaturated fats are commonly found in plants and vegetables. Because unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, margarine isn't good for baking. But unsaturated fats are considered "good" because they play several beneficial roles. They can help:
- Improve your blood cholesterol levels
- Ease inflammation
- Stabilize your heart rhythm
- Lower your chances of heart disease
Butter's "bad" fats. The animal fats in butter means it has higher levels of saturated and trans fats. These fats can lead to higher cholesterol, greater chance of heart disease, and lower levels of HDL cholesterol—the "good" cholesterol that unclogs arteries.
Saturated fats pop up in many foods, but most people get them from meat and dairy. While they impact "bad" cholesterol, about 5% of your calories each day should come from saturated fats. The trans fats in butter cause oils to solidify, which gives butter its creamy consistency.
A serving of stick margarine contains around 2 grams of saturated fat and 3 grams of trans fat, while a serving of margarine from a tub contains 3 grams of saturated fat and no trans fat.
In comparison, a serving of stick butter contains around 7 grams of saturated fat and no trans fat, while a serving of butter from a tub contains around 4 grams of saturated fat and no trans fat.
Potential Health Benefits of Butter
In moderation, butter can be a healthy part of your diet. It's rich in nutrients like bone-building calcium and has compounds linked to lower chances of obesity. Butter can also be part of a low-carbohydrate diet, which may help people better maintain their weight or lose weight quicker than they would with a low-fat diet.
Butter has other health benefits:
It may help lower your chances of cancer. Butter is high in beta-carotene, a compound that your body converts into vitamin A. Beta-carotene has been linked to lowered risks of lung cancer and prostate cancer.
It could help your eyes. The beta-carotene in butter may also help slow the rate of vision loss or age-related macular degeneration.
It can help strengthen your bones. Butter contains vitamin D, a nutrient that is vital for bone growth and development. It also has calcium, which is essential for bone strength. Calcium also helps prevent diseases such as osteoporosis, a condition that makes bones weak and fragile.
It can help make your skin healthier. Butter also has vitamin E, which plays a role in skin health. The nutrient reduces damage from UV sun rays, eases skin inflammation, and helps skin wounds heal.
Potential Risks of Butter
Butter is high in calories and fat—including saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease.
Use this ingredient sparingly, especially if you have heart disease or are looking to cut back on calories. The American Heart Association's current recommendation is to limit your consumption of saturated fat.
Whether you're cooking or just putting it on your bread, there are some alternatives to butter that are a bit healthier:
Most spreadable butters are typically a mix of butter and vegetable oil. This gives you about half the saturated fat of butter.
These spreads usually have fewer calories than butter or margarine, as well as less fat and saturated fat. Some varieties are made with olive or canola oil.
Most of these are also mixed with vegetable oils. Coconut spread often melts and spreads easily. It may have a strong coconut taste. Even though coconuts are popular for having healthy fats, they also have saturated fat, so be sure to check the label.
At home, you can whip refined coconut oil with a hand or stand mixer to make a butter substitute. Whipped coconut cream is a great alternative for making sweets like frosting.
You can mix cashew, peanut, or almond butter with sugar for a quick cookie base. Because it is thick and rich, nut butter often mimics the consistency of butter in baked goods.
This butter substitute tastes like chocolate, so it's best for recipes that already use chocolate as an ingredient. Cacao butter is 100% fat. Use less than you'd use in a recipe that calls for butter because butter only has 80% fat content.
With a creamy texture and mild taste, avocado is great for desserts. Make sure that your avocado is ripe and soft before using it for baking so there are no lumps. Avocado begins to brown quickly, so bake the batter right after mixing for the best results.
The liquid from canned chickpeas can be whipped to make aquafaba, an alternative to egg whites. When you mix this substance with oil, it becomes a dairy-free mayonnaise and a great alternative to butter.
If you're looking for something to put on your bread, some healthy alternatives include:
- Mashed avocado
- Extra virgin olive oil