By Rebecca Moore
There are two things that most people know about butter. One, that it tastes like heaven, two, that it’s bad for you. It’s the latter part of that couplet which has been responsible for the ongoing slow decline of the UK butter market as more and more people switch to spreads of various stripes, which taste at best of nothing, but which are at least meant to be good for us.
The butter/margarine debate has been going on for decades, but it really took off when research into heart disease during the late 50s early 60s seemed to show a causal link between the eating of saturated fats – including butter – and heart disease. That coupled with the fact that people around the Mediterranean with a very low saturated fat consumption but a very high olive oil consumption seemed to suffer less from heart disease has gradually filtered through into a general acceptance that butter is bad and margarine good.
None of this research has ever been accepted across the whole medical establishment. Many doctors are keen to point out that it was the food industry that took up this research and promoted it so heavily, perhaps in part because there was money to be made. We now know that the hardening process used to make oils into solid spreads, hydrogenation, turned out to create trans fatty acids which are more dangerous to health than the saturated fats they were meant to replace so marg was actually worse for you than butter. And while many spread manufacturers now use alternative methods to harden their oils, it’s hard to feel confident that these in their turn won’t produce their own adverse side effects. And given that it tastes truly appalling in many cases do you really want to be eating something so untried?
We do on the other hand know a lot about butter as we’ve lived with it for centuries and it is truly the fat of our land. Butter is what emerges when you churn milk, making the fat molecules smash together and separate from the whey. It is by no means a homogenous product, and contains a huge range of different fats. Some are the “bad” saturated fats about which few scientists have much good to say, but others, depending on the animals’ diet, are the “good” fats , like oleic, which is what you find in the olive oil and which we are all being encouraged to eat. Butter also contains CLA, conjugated linoleic acid, which researchers now think might have protective effects against a number of cancers and is only found in dairy products or the meat of certain ruminants. Butter is also high in short chain fatty acids, which are also good for you – it is now known that the positive effects attributed to fibre in the diet is actually the work of the short chain fatty acids produced in the gut to deal with the fibre. And as a cooking medium butter and olive oil are much better from a scientific point of view (as well as taste) than margarine as the fats remain stable under the influence of heat, unlike those in margarines which are more likely to oxidise, again no good for your health.
The proportions of these fats in their butter is down to the diet and the breed of cow. A grass fed cow grazing in the early spring produces more of the healthy fats than a cow being fed on concentrated animal feed. As a rule of thumb you can assume that the cheaper your butter the higher milk yielding the cow, which will mean more concentrates in its diet so fewer of the good fats. A grass fed organic cow will produce more of these good fats. Guernseys and Jerseys are excellent at converting betacarotene from the grass, hence the deeper golden colour of their milk. So if you are looking for the best butter for your health, you would ideally be buying organic Guernsey or Jersey butter from well established organic fields where the range of grasses, flowers and herbs is the greatest. And you’d want to buy it in the late spring, early summer. Needless to say you don’t get much of this in Tesco or Sainsbury’s, but smaller shops or farmers markets are a better bet.
And if you do eat butter, look after it – it is a natural product and like all natural products it should go off quickly. So, for maximum enjoyment:
1. buy the best butter you can
2. slice it into small portions and freeze what you can’t use in a couple of days (butter freezes very well)
3. use a butter dish that excludes light and as much air as possible to prevent oxidisation which makes the butter ultimately go rancid (you can still cook with rancid butter)
I find it depressing that so much of the debate about food now comes down to whether it is good or bad for you. Common sense says that what is bad for you in excess doesn’t have to be bad for you full stop. So unless you are eating gargantuan slabs of butter with every meal, buy the best you can afford, keep it well, and enjoy one of life’s simplest, but greatest, pleasures.
Rebecca Moore is a Producer of The Food Programme on Radio 4