Butter: Are There Health Benefits?

Butter is a dairy product created from 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 create butter by churning milk or cream to separate fat globules from the buttermilk. They also sometimes add salt and food coloring.

Rendering butter (removing the water and milk solids) produces butterfat-rich clarified butter, or ghee. Home chefs like cooking with ghee because it has a higher smoke point than regular butter, which browns or burns easily. The higher smoke point makes ghee well-suited for frying and sauteeing foods at high heat. 

Non-dairy “butters” like peanut butter, apple butter, cocoa butter, and baby bottom butter are not butter in the literal sense but do resemble butter in consistency. 

Some studies have found 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. Scientists have debated the health benefits of butter for decades.

Nutrition Information

One tablespoon of unsalted butter contains:

  • 102 calories
  • 12 grams of fat
  • 0 grams of carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, and protein

Butter is an excellent source of:

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 contains 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 can 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 help slow the rate of vision loss, or age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

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 contains vitamin E, which plays a role in skin health. The nutrient reduces damage from UV sun rays, reduces skin inflammation, and improves how well skin wounds heal.

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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.

Healthier Alternatives

Whether you're cooking, or just putting it on your bread, there are some alternatives to butter that have a bit healthier profile:

Spreadable butters are typically a mix of butter and vegetable oil. This gives you about half the saturated fat of butter.

Buttery 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.

If you're looking with something to put on your bread, some healthy alternatives include:

  • Mashed avocado
  • Hummus
  • Extra virgin olive oil
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 23, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Colorado State University Kendall Regan Nutrition Center: “Cooking with Fats and Oils: Can they withstand heat?”

ESHA Research, Inc., Salem, Oregon.

Harvard Medical School: “Two keys to strong bones: Calcium and Vitamin D.

Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “We Repeat: Butter Is Not Back.”

National Institutes of Health, “Vitamin A.”

New England Journal of Medicine: “A randomized trial of a low-carbohydrate diet for obesity.”

Nutrients: “Conjugated Linoleic Acid Effects on Cancer, Obesity, and Atherosclerosis.”

Oregon State University: “Vitamin E and Skin Health.”

Consumer Reports: "The Best Healthy Butter Substitutes."

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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