New research suggests that butter, which has long on the list of foods to eat less of in order to maintain good heart health, may not be as much of a health concern as originally thought.
Never has the role that food plays in health been so topical and so widely debated. Perhaps part of this debate, and public confusion arising from it, comes from the imperfect science of nutrition that attempts to draw links between food, nutrients, dietary patterns and health.
One of the more polarising messages is to do with saturated fat. The past focus on saturated fat and heart disease meant that public recommendations were framed more at the nutrient level, rather than always food focussed.
No single food is made up of just saturated fat, but a complex mixture of a variety of fats. Without moving too much into the heated debate of how strong the link is between saturated fat and heart disease, researchers are now re-examining the story in the context of foods and dietary patterns.
One food that perhaps represents the food versus nutrient focus is butter.
Butter was taken off the menu when the focus of past dietary guideline messages was about eating less fat and in particular less saturated fat. With changing evidence suggesting that dairy fat may not have been as unhealthy as first proposed, and the re-embracing of dietary pattern messages over nutrient advice, scientists have taken a look at butter again.
Researchers in the United States looked at links between eating butter regularly and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and overall mortality rates in nine studies that included more than 636,000 people.
Eating butter was not found to have a significant impact on the risk of heart disease and had a very small higher risk of earlier mortality. On the reverse side, butter was linked with a very slight decrease in the risk of diabetes. With such small effects, however, the overall case for butter was neutral.
The amount of butter eaten in the different studies varied, with average consumption ranging from one-third of a serving to just over three servings per day.
A serving of butter is considered one tablespoon. Even allowing for the normal background diets that people were eating and many other factors, it is extremely difficult to isolate only the impact of butter consumption on health from observational studies.
Also, the current study only made a comparison between butter consumption and the whole diet. Other sources of dietary fat such as extra virgin olive oil and other vegetable oils show a health benefit when used to replace foods high in saturated fat.
As part of an overall healthy diet, butter is not a food that needs to be demonised however it does need to be enjoyed in moderation.
On the flip side though, and with a nod to the zeitgeist of embracing ‘butter is back’ as a miracle health food, there is little to suggest that it has any health benefits.