Do you remember the buttercup test? Pick a buttercup flower and place it under the chin of your friend. If there was a reflection it meant your friend liked butter. Seems to me there was almost always a reflection. But on the rare occasion there wasn’t, the poor child was considered an outcast. I mean, how could they not like butter. Really?!
I think of this little game now and I laugh because it’s probably a pretty safe bet that when I was playing this game my mom had already stopped serving up butter and had made the switch to margarine and shortening. All for the sake of our family’s health of course. Everyone was switching. We were just doing as we were told. Avoid saturated animal fats because they are bad and only eat polyunsaturated vegetable fats because they are good. Then came the belated acknowledgment that these man-made butter substitutes offered up unhealthy trans fats due to the extraction and hydrogenation process used to produce them. Whoops! The response from the food industry – promote tub spreads which contain “reduced” amounts of trans fats and label them as “zero trans fats” as long as they have an “acceptable” amount per serving. Acceptable? Um.
Despite the trans fats debacle by the food industry, many people still believe that “butter alternatives” are healthier than the real thing. Not surprising considering the marketing dollars behind these products and the consistent pointing to saturated fats as unhealthy. But I beg to differ.
First, I disagree on the basis that the healthiness of a product is directly correlated to the degree of processing it has undergone. Least processed equals more healthy in my book. It is not the polyunsaturated fat itself that is the problem, but how it is processed in order to produce these “butter alternatives” that makes the difference. Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are naturally subject to becoming damaged and rancid. They are highly sensitive to heat, light, moisture, and oxygen, so special care must be taken when processing them (and storing them). And when we do consume rancid PUFAs, which we all have and some of us regularly, it means we must use our body’s reserves of antioxidants to fight the fight against the free radicals that are generated. So here’s the million dollar question – do you trust that your “butter alternative” was processed with proper care? There is really no way to be certain, but personally, I don’t bet on it and you shouldn’t either. Particularly when there is a more certain choice – butter. Butter is cream (preferably organic and from grass-fed cows), and maybe a little salt, that is produced by churning. Sure, some butters are higher quality than others. But least processed equals more healthy.
Second, yes, butter primarily consists of saturated fat, but saturated fats are not the root-of-all-evil they have been portrayed to be (nor is cholesterol but that’s a topic for another blog). Saturated fats are highly stable and do not go rancid easily, even in high temperatures (which makes it the ultimate choice for cooking). Our body makes saturated fat because it is essential to our health. Most of the vitamins and minerals in food are fat-soluble and cannot be absorbed without adequate natural fats. And scientific literature identifies a number of other vital roles for saturated fats – they enhance the immune system, are necessary for healthy bones, protect the liver, and provide energy to our cells.
Third, butter is jam-packed with healthy nutrients. Butter is an easily absorbed source of vitamin A which plays a role in the proper functioning of the cardiovascular and immune system. Butter contains antioxidants such as vitamin E and selenium, conjugated linoleic acid which provides protection against cancer, vitamin D to support strong bones and teeth, and vitamin K essential for optimum growth is found in the butterfat of milk from grass-fed cows. And for those concerned about weight gain from eating butter, don’t be. The fat profiles found in butter are not stored in the body as fat but are used for energy.
Still not convinced? Consider this statistic. Heart disease was rare in America at the turn of the century. Between 1920 and 1960, the incidence of heart disease rose to become America’s number one killer. During the same period butter consumption plummeted from eighteen pounds per person per year to four (M Enig, Trans Fatty Acids in the Food Supply). Not necessarily conclusive, but probably not a coincidence either.
So just go ahead and eat butter already. And give it to your kids and grand-kids daily. And then send them outdoors in search of buttercups.
Sidebar: I AM NOT suggesting that you eat only saturated fats and don’t eat polyunsaturated fats. I AM suggesting that you consume a variety of natural fats from safe and minimally processed sources. Consuming PUFAs in limited amounts that are unprocessed or minimally processed through safe methods is good practice and also essential for our health. The omega-3 we hear so much about falls into this category and is found in flax oil, pumpkin oil, and fish oil. Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) are also healthy and beneficial. Olive oil, peanut oil, and avocado oil fall into this category. BUT REMEMBER…when purchasing these fats/oils it is very important to avoid any product that has the words refined, hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated or cold-processed on the label. Be sure to read the label and look for organic, cold-pressed, expeller-pressed, and unrefined.