Research & Education

Butter is Beautiful (with a little nod to St. Patrick’s Day!)

After decades of being banished from breakfast—and every other meal, for that matter—butter is back!  Saturated fat has been exonerated as the primary cause of heart disease and every other nefarious health outcome under the sun.  Thankfully, we’re finally starting to see the words “saturated fat” not prefaced by the phrase “artery-clogging,” and popular mainstream publications are bringing the good news to the public.  And since Ireland is so famous for the delicious butter produced by cows grazing on the lush, green pastures of the Emerald Isle, in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, let’s take a closer look at this cherished fat of yesteryear, which is undergoing a well-deserved renaissance.

Since it’s close to a pure fat, butter isn’t exactly a rich source of micronutrients.  But that’s fine; this isn’t what butter is known for.  If someone’s depending on butter to be their primary source of vitamins and minerals, they might want to rethink their diet.  For those using butter as a condiment, a cooking fat, or in baked goods, it does have a few things going for it.

Nutrient Profile of Butter

Butter contains predominantly saturated and monounsaturated fats, with a tiny amount of polyunsaturated to complete things.  It provides a small amount of fat-soluble vitamins A, E, and K.  The fatty acid and nutrient composition of butter varies depending on a cow’s diet.  Numerous analyses have shown that butter from exclusively grass-fed or pastured cows is higher in omega-3 fats, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and beta-carotene than that from cows on grain-based rations.  In fact, unless synthetic coloring has been added, butter from pastured cows is easy to tell from butter from mostly grain-fed cows, because the difference in color is so stark. Owing to carotenes from green grass becoming concentrated in the dairy fat from pastured cows, butter from these animals has a much more yellow appearance than butter from conventionally fed cows.  (The increased vitamin A content in butter from grass-fed cows may be the result of some of the carotene precursors being converted into true vitamin A.)  The same holds true for the intramuscular fat in beef from grass-fed steers. 

It’s interesting to note, however, that each breed of cow appears to have a “ceiling” above which the color of their fat and dairy fat does not increase, even if their feed is enriched with carotene-rich fodder.  So if you see butter or beef from grass-fed animals, but they’re less yellow than you expect, it’s possible this is just an artifact of the particular breed.  To be sure that the butter and beef you get is from truly grass-fed and finished animals, know your farmer! 

Fatty Acid Composition

Regarding fatty acid composition, butter from grass-fed cows contains significantly more CLA than butter from cows with a high grain ration.  CLA is a trans-fat, but unlike the industrial trans-fats—the ones created by partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils—the naturally occurring trans-fats in ruminant animals seem to be beneficial for health, rather than harmful.    

A recent study collected over a thousand samples of milk from U.S. cows fed a nearly 100% forage-based diet and compared their fatty acid profiles to those of milk from organically and conventionally fed cows analyzed in past studies.  The milkfat of grass-fed cows was substantially higher in CLA and omega-3:


Omega-6/Omega-3 Ratio

Total Omega-3 (mg/100g)

CLA (mg/100g)














Since the total amount of polyunsaturated fat in dairy fat is very low, even a 5.77 n-6 to n-3 ratio isn’t really that big an issue.  And the omega-3 and CLA are shown in milligrams, so we’re not exactly talking huge amounts here.  Nonetheless, it’s likely that we only need small amounts of these, but many people aren’t getting even this.  The highly processed, vegetable oil-laden foods many people rely on for the majority of their diet are nearly devoid of omega-3 and CLA, so every little bit can help—especially if getting more is as simple and delicious as eating more butter.  Not exactly a hardship!

Vitamin K2

The vitamin K content of butter is worth a brief discussion.  Unlike the type of vitamin K found in leafy greens—vitamin K1—butter contains vitamin K2.  Vitamin K2 has been confirmed as nutrition research pioneer Weston A. Price’s elusive “activator X”—a compound in butter and other animal foods that seemed especially helpful for halting or reversing tooth decay.  While K1 is best known for its role in blood coagulation (the “K” comes from the Danish koagulation), vitamin K2’s primary job is serving as a “traffic cop” for calcium: K2 helps direct the deposition of calcium into places it’s supposed to be, like bones and teeth, and keeps it out of places it’s not supposed to be, such as artery walls, joints, and the kidneys.  A protein called matrix Gla protein has been called the strongest inhibitor of tissue calcification presently known.  In order for matrix Gla protein to function properly, it must be carboxylated, and the carboxylating agent is vitamin K2.  So after all those decades of being told butter will cause atherosclerosis, it turns out it might be just the opposite.

Get Cooking!

If you’re looking for creative ways to incorporate more butter into your diet—especially if you’re grain-free, low-carb, or keto, and spreading some on a bagel isn’t in your future—these recipes for flavored compound butters can jazz up steaks, pork chops, vegetables and more, and you’ll look like a culinary rock star.

Online ordering and local buying clubs mean more people have easy access to grass-fed meats and dairy products.  When this isn’t an option, though, certified organic products are also a good way to go.  One study even showed that, on average, organic butter actually had more CLA and omega-3s than butter from grass-fed cows.  (This may be due to differences in the overall feed, since the nutrient content and fatty acid profile of butter vary depending on season and the animals’ diet.)  Either way, organic or grass-fed are the clear winners compared to conventional butter.    

Here’s a fun, layperson-friendly look at grass-fed butter that you can share with your patients, from Mark Sisson, Primal Blueprint author and curator of the popular website, Mark’s Daily Apple.

Enjoy!...and go ahead and add a little butter to your St. Patrick’s Day celebration!

By Amy Berger, MS, CNS