After being vilified for decades, butter is back and booming. Not only has it made a comeback, but sales are soaring, with per capita butter consumption up 24% in the U.S. over the last decade.1 Changes in eating habits due to the pandemic pushed demand for butter even higher in 2020. Dairy cooperative Land O’Lakes estimated a 20% increase in sales during the last year, reaching 275 million to 300 million pounds sold.2
The rise in retail demand, triggered by Americans cooking and baking more at home during the pandemic, was so high it made up for declines in restaurant butter demand — and then some. In a statement, the company reported a $ 54 million year-over-year earnings increase from 2019 to 2020, adding:3
“Earnings improved by $ 54 million in the third quarter due to strong performance across the portfolio. Dairy Foods earnings were higher due to continued strength in Retail, which more than offset lower volumes in Foodservice and commodity market volatility due to impacts of COVID-19.”
Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture concur, showing a 6% rise in butter production during the first six months of 2020, with trends suggesting it may top 2 billion pounds for the year — the highest it’s been since 1943.4
Butter’s Popularity Outpaces Margarine’s
In the early 1900s, per-capita annual butter consumption in the U.S. was greater than 15 pounds, but this dropped sharply as margarine consumption increased. The dairy industry fought back from the beginning, when margarine entered the marketplace in 1869.
The Oleomargarine Act (margarine was known as oleomargarine at the time) was passed in 1886, which imposed a 2 cent per pound tax on margarine, which originally was made from excess animal fat harvested from slaughterhouses.5 It was also prohibited to color “artificial butter” yellow to make it look more like real butter,6 while the state of New Hampshire briefly required margarine to be tinted pink.7
Despite the initial backlash, margarine, with its lower price and claims of superior health benefits, soared in popularity by the middle of the century and outpaced butter consumption in 1957.
As saturated fats fell out of favor, and health officials wrongly urged Americans to avoid such healthy fats as butter to reduce their risk of heart disease and lose weight, margarine, which came to be made with refined vegetable oils and trans fats, became the go-to spread and cooking companion.
We now know that refined vegetable oils are among the worst foods to consume, and a prominent study released in 1997, which examined the effects of margarine on cardiovascular disease, revealed that margarine increases your heart attack risk.8 Still, for decades margarine remained more popular than butter; it wasn’t until 2005 that butter regained its top title, and consumption has been on the rise ever since.9
Butter Is Good for You
Butter is still regarded by many as a guilty pleasure, one of those foods that you shouldn’t really be eating, but indulge in anyway because it’s just so good. But this is one case where you can indulge guilt-free, because butter is a health food — especially when it’s made with milk from grass fed cows.
Unlike heavily processed margarine, butter is a whole food that contains nutrients your body needs. This includes:10
Nutrients in Butter
Vitamin A in the most absorbable form
Lecithin — necessary for cholesterol metabolism and nerve health
Wulzen Factor — hormone-like substance known to prevent arthritis and joint stiffness (destroyed by pasteurization)
Fatty acids, especially short- and medium-chain in the perfect omega-3 to omega-6 balance
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) — anticancer agent, muscle builder and immunity booster
Minerals, including selenium, manganese, chromium, zinc, and copper
Iodine in a highly absorbable form
Arachidonic acid (AA) — brain function and healthy cell membranes
Glycosphingolipids — fatty acids that protect against GI infections
Multiple studies support butter consumption for good health. In a systematic review and meta-analysis of nine publications including 15 country-specific cohorts, butter consumption was not significantly associated with cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease or stroke, but increased consumption was associated with a lower incidence of diabetes.11
A Closer Look at the Beneficial Compounds in Butter
Multiple compounds in butterfat are associated with health benefits. One of the most well-known is CLA, which not only is anticancer, but also heart healthy and anti-inflammatory with antiobesity effects as well.12
Sphingolipids, such as ceramides, sphingomyelin, cerebrosides, sulfatides and gangliosides, are also found in butter. These compounds influence cell regulation and have antimicrobial and immunomodulatory effects, while inhibiting cholesterol adsorption. They also have potential anticancer effects. According to Advances in Food and Nutrition Research:13
“When consumed, sphingomyelin is transformed to ceramide by sphingomyelinase, and further ceramide is digested to sphingosine and a free fatty acid before being absorbed. Ceramide is known as a cancer cell apoptosis inducer. The consumption of sphingomyelin was related to the prevention of colon cancer in mice and humans.”
There’s also butyric acid, an anticancer compound found in milk fat. Butyric acid and its salts, including butyrate, are beneficial for your gut and have beneficial effects on energy homeostasis, obesity, immune system regulation, cancer and brain function. Myristic acid is a long-chain saturated fatty acid also found abundantly in milk fat.
It’s involved in important metabolic processes, and moderate consumption may improve omega-3 fat levels, which could lead to improvements in heart health. The consumption of myristic acid from dairy fat is also linked to increases in HDL cholesterol and decreases in triglyceride levels with additional noted immunomodulatory properties.14
It’s not surprising, then, that accumulating research supports the consumption of whole-fat dairy like butter. The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study,15 published in The Lancet, is among them.
As lead study author Mahshid Dehghan, a senior research associate and nutrition epidemiology investigator at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, noted in the featured study, “Our results showed an inverse association between total dairy and mortality and major cardiovascular disease. The risk of stroke was markedly lower with higher consumption of dairy.”16
Grass Fed Butter Is Best
Keep in mind that butter’s nutritional value depends on how the animals are raised, as the fatty acid composition of butterfat varies according to the animal’s diet. The very best quality butter is raw (unpasteurized) from grass fed cows, preferably certified organic.
The next best is pasteurized butter from grass fed or pastured organic cows, followed by regular pasteurized butter common in supermarkets. Even the latter two are healthier choices by orders of magnitude than margarines or other vegetable-oil based spreads. Why is grass fed butter better? Milk from cows raised primarily on pasture has been shown to be higher in many nutrients, including vitamin E, beta-carotene and the healthy fats omega-3 and CLA.17
The improved fatty acid profile in grass fed organic milk and dairy products brings the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio to a near 1-to-1, compared to 5.7-to-1 in conventional whole milk. This is important, since the majority of Americans eat 10 to 15 times the amount of omega-6s compared to what they eat in omega-3s.18
“Because of often high per‐capita dairy consumption relative to most other sources of omega‐3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, these differences in grassmilk [grass fed milk] can help restore a historical balance of fatty acids and potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular and other metabolic diseases,” researchers noted.19
A study published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and nutrition also highlighted the differences in human health after consuming the same foods from animals raised in different ways:20
“Multiple studies have shown that food products from animals raised on pasture instead of grains contain significantly higher amounts of nutrients that may protect against cancer, like omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid.
Due to the general recommendation against dietary fat consumption over the past several decades, there has been a lack of scientific dialogue regarding the differences pasture-raised animal byproducts may have on health and cancer prevention.”
Indeed, they found that while lipid levels remained relatively neutral overall, significant differences were found in inflammatory markers and phospholipids depending on whether the animal foods came from animals fed grass or grains:21
“While red meat, butter, cheese, and eggs have been generally treated as nutritional boogeymen with most nutritional recommendations endorsing their avoidance, these individual foods may vary significantly in nutritional value and the corresponding effect on consumers.
Grass-fed butter, n-3 enriched eggs, and wild game meat appear to have a neutral effect on serum lipids while providing a decrease in several inflammatory factors, potentially improving health.
Significant data exist illustrating a marked differing physiological affect from consuming the exact same food produced from animals raised differently, and this finding could have a large impact on population-wide dietary recommendations if controlled for in future studies.”
Dairy Farmers Dump Milk as Butter Sales Climb
It’s ironic that butter sales are through the roof when the dairy industry as a whole has been challenged during the pandemic. In spring 2020, dairy farmers were forced to dump milk as demand from restaurants and schools plummeted. It was forecast that the dairy industry could lose $ 5 billion to $ 10 billion in sales over the next six months.22
Two major milk producers — Dean Foods and Borden Dairy — had already filed bankruptcies in November 2019 and January 2020 as U.S. milk sales had declined before the pandemic. However, the pandemic has since had a favorable effect on U.S. retail milk sales, which increased 8.3% from January 2020 to July 18, 2020. During the same period the year prior, sales were down 2.3%.23
For butter producer Land O’Lakes, sales were so strong over the summer of 2020 that they didn’t put nearly as much butter in cold storage as they normally do.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford said, “Often times, even for the retail business, what you do is you make a lot of butter because it’s peak milk production time, and you store it for the key season [during the holidays]. But the buying was so strong that we didn’t do that, because we were selling right off the line.”24
Increasingly, it appears Americans are seeking traditional, whole foods that provide solid nutrition and feelings of comfort, which butter certainly fulfills on both levels.
As mentioned, when seeking out the best butter, skip that made from CAFO milk and support small farmers offering butter made from grass fed cow’s milk. If you can’t find a local farmer at a nearby farmers market, look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo on dairy products, which ensures the highest quality grass fed products.