Let’s give three cheers for butterfat: the much maligned major component of butter, also found in full-fat dairy products (and to a lesser degree all dairy products except those made with all skimmed milk.)
Butterfat has been maligned because it contains a high proportion (about 60%) of saturated fatty acids. The other 40% is the supposedly more healthy unsaturated fatty acids (primarily oleic acid.)
But wait a minute. There’s good news about butter.
Let me share with you two of the lesser known but unique nutritional advantages of butter.
Butter is one of the only dietary sources of butyrate.
Butyrate is a saturated fatty acid, but it’s a short one – only four carbons long. Butyrate is the main molecule that the cells of your intestinal lining use for energy. And butter is about the only way you can get it in your diet.
Of course, if you don’t eat butter, all is not lost. Your friendly intestinal bacteria will create butyrate for you as a by-product of their metabolism, particularly if you consume plenty of their raw material – fiber.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to give your intestinal lining cells an extra nutritional boost with the butyrate found in butter.
Butter is one of the only dietary sources of odd-numbered fatty acid carbon chains.
In the normal metabolism of animals, the chains of carbon atoms that form the backbone of fatty acids are built two carbons at a time. So, naturally, animals wind up with fatty acids of even-numbered lengths. If you eat meat, you’re consuming lots of 12’s (lauric acid), 14’s (myristic acid), 16’s (palmitic acid) and so forth.
But because of cows’ (and other ruminants’) special digestive tracts, the bacteria that live in the intestinal tract of cows produce odd-length chains, mostly 15’s (pentadecanoic acid) and 17’s (heptadecanoic acid, in case you wondered) that show up in their milk.
These fatty acid chains actually improve your cardiovascular system and reduce your health risk. And, since, your body can’t produce them, some people have proposed that they be considered essential fatty acids.
Until the last 50 years or so, butterfat was seen as a rich, tasty, and healthy food element. As our scientific understanding of fats and their role in health evolves, it may be that butter and full-fat dairy products will come to be restored to their rightful place fairly high up the pyramid of healthy foods.
Dr. Lavine has been an innovator in the use of movement and touch to promote health since 1981. He practices in New York City and Princeton, NJ.