Eating butter has only a small negative impact on total mortality, it does not worsen cardiovascular health, and it may help to protect against diabetes, according to research published in PLOS One.
Saturated fat is generally considered unhealthy, and dietary guidelines recommend avoiding it.
In 2014, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) noted that consumption of butter in the U.S. was at an all-time high.
In view of this, the authors of the current study felt that an investigation into the impact of butter consumption would be "highly relevant and timely."
A growing number of experts have been rethinking the focus on isolated macronutrients, such as saturated fats, and their impact on chronic conditions.
Instead, there is a call toward food-based paradigms. This type of approach might better take into account, for example, the fact that the specific fatty acid profile of one food that is rich in dairy fat will be different from the profiles of other foods.
The argument goes that a range of items that are similarly high in dairy fats may also contain other substances that could have different lipid and metabolic effects.
For example, dairy products such as yogurt and certain cheeses have been found to have metabolic properties that may help to prevent type 2 diabetes, despite being dairy fats.
Could dairy fat be good for cardiometabolic health?
Butter has a high level of saturated dairy fat content, but how this impacts total mortality, cardiovascular health, and diabetes is unknown.
Researchers from Tufts University in Boston, MA, led by Laura Pimpin Ph.D., a former postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Technology, wanted to see if there were any links between butter consumption, chronic disease, and all-cause mortality.
The researchers carried out a meta-analysis, in which they systematically reviewed data for 636,151 people in nine research studies, in order to calculate the relative risk of consuming butter.
The studies covered 15 country-specific cohorts, and the subjects were followed up for a total of 6.5 million person-years.
During the follow-up period, there were 28,271 deaths, 9,783 cases of cardiovascular disease (CVD), and 23,954 cases of new-onset type 2 diabetes.
The authors considered standard consumption of butter consumption to be 14 grams a day, as estimated by the USDA. This is approximately one tablespoon of butter.
Across the nine studies, average butter consumption varied between one third of a serving per day to 3.2 servings per day.
Overall, each daily serving of butter was linked either minimally with a risk of CVD, not at all with total mortality, and inversely with diabetes, apparently offering some protection against this chronic condition.
Butter in the balance
Given the results, senior author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the School of Nutrition Science and Technology at Tufts, comments that butter should not be "demonized," but neither should we see it as a route to good health.
Pimpin says that although it is common for people who eat more butter to have less healthy lifestyles and diets, the overall results seem to be fairly neutral.
"This suggests that butter may be a 'middle-of-the-road' food: a more healthful choice than sugar or starch, such as the white bread or potato on which butter is commonly spread and which have been linked to higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease; and a worse choice than many margarines and cooking oils - those rich in healthy fats such as soybean, canola, flaxseed, and extra virgin olive oils, which would likely lower risk compared with either butter or refined grains, starches, and sugars."
Laura Pimpin, Ph.D.
Dr. Mozaffarian calls for more research into a potential link between butter consumption and an apparently lower risk of diabetes. He notes that other studies of dairy fat have indicated similar results.