The first step in butter production involves separating cream from the milk.
In the past, milk was simply left standing until the cream rose to the surface, at which point it was skimmed. Cream rises because fat is lighter than the other milk components.
Modern cream production involves a more efficient method called centrifugation.
Butter is then produced from cream via churning, which involves shaking the cream until the milk fat — or butter — clumps together and separates from the liquid portion — or buttermilk.
After the buttermilk is drained off, the butter is churned further until it becomes ready for packaging.
Butter is produced by separating cream from the milk, then churning the cream to drain off the extra liquid.
As it’s mainly composed of fat, butter is a high-calorie food. One tablespoon (14 grams) of butter packs about 100 calories, which is similar to 1 medium-sized banana.
The nutrition facts for 1 tablespoons (14 grams) of salted butter are (2):
- Calories: 102<
- Water: 16%
- Protein: 0.12 grams
- Carbs: 0.01 grams
- Sugar: 0.01 grams
- Fiber: 0 grams
- Fat: 11.52 grams
- Saturated: 7.29 grams
- Monounsaturated: 2.99 grams
- Polyunsaturated: 0.43 grams
- Trans: 0.47 grams
Butter contains significant amounts of calories and fat, packing over 100 calories and 11 grams of fat into 1 tablespoon (14 grams).
Fats in butter
Butter is about 80% fat, and the rest is mostly water.
It’s basically the fatty portion of milk that has been isolated from the protein and carbs.
Butter is one of the most complex of all dietary fats, containing more than 400 different fatty acids.
It is very high in saturated fatty acids (about 70%) and holds a fair amount of monounsaturated fatty acids (about 25%).
Polyunsaturated fats are only present in minimal amounts, consisting of about 2.3% of the total fat content (1, 2).
Other types of fatty substances found in butter include cholesterol and phospholipids.
Around 11% of the saturated fats in butter are short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), the most common of which is butyric acid (1).
Butyric acid is a unique component of the milk fat of ruminant animals, such as cattle, sheep, and goats.
Butyrate, which is a form of butyric acid, has been shown to reduce inflammation in the digestive system and has been used as a treatment for Crohn’s disease (3).
Dairy trans fats
Unlike trans fats in processed foods, dairy trans fats are considered healthy.
Butter is the richest dietary source of dairy trans fats, the most common of which are vaccenic acid and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (4).
CLA is associated with various health benefits (5).
Test-tube and animal studies indicate that CLA may protect against certain types of cancer (6, 7, 8).
CLA is also sold as a weight loss supplement (9).
However, not all studies support its weight loss effects, and it’s possible that large doses of CLA supplements may harm metabolic health (10, 11, 12).
Butter is mainly composed of fat, such as saturated, monounsaturated, and dairy trans fats.
Vitamins and minerals
Butter is a rich source of several vitamins — especially fat-soluble ones.
The following vitamins are found in high amounts in butter:
- Vitamin A. It’s the most abundant vitamin in butter. One tablespoon (14 grams) provides about 11% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) (2).
- Vitamin D. Butter is a good source of vitamin D.
- Vitamin E. A powerful antioxidant, vitamin E is often found in fatty foods.
- Vitamin B12. Also called cobalamin, vitamin B12 is only found in foods of animal or bacterial origin, such as eggs, meat, dairy products, and fermented food.
- Vitamin K2. A form of vitamin K, this vitamin — also called menaquinone — may protect against heart disease and osteoporosis (13, 14, 15).
However, butter doesn’t contribute much to your total daily intake of these vitamins because you usually consume it in small amounts.
Butter is rich in various vitamins, including A, D, E, B12, and K2.
If eaten in conventional amounts, butter has few known adverse health effects.
However, eating butter in large amounts may very well lead to weight gain and associated health problems, especially in the context of a high-calorie diet.
A few downsides are outlined below.
Although butter is very low in protein, it still contains enough allergenic whey proteins to cause reactions.
Therefore, people with a milk allergy should be careful with butter — or avoid it altogether.
Butter contains only trace amounts of lactose, so moderate consumption should be safe for most people with lactose intolerance.
Cultured butter (made from fermented milk) and clarified butter — also called ghee — provide even less lactose and may be more suitable.
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in modern society.
The relationship between saturated fats and heart disease has been a controversial topic for several decades (16, 17, 18, 19).
A high intake of saturated fat can increase levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your blood, which is a risk factor for heart disease (20).
However, critics point out that saturated fat doesn’t raise the type of LDL most strongly associated with heart disease — small, dense LDL (sdLDL) particles (21, 22).
Additionally, many studies have failed to find a link between saturated fat intake and heart disease (16, 23, 24).
The same applies to high-fat dairy products like butter. Some studies indicate that high-fat dairy products do not increase your risk of heart disease (18).
Notably, other observational studies link intake of high-fat dairy products to benefits for heart health (25, 26, 27).
Despite these controversies, most official dietary guidelines still advise against eating high amounts of saturated fat.
Butter is generally healthy — and low in lactose — but may contribute to weight gain when eaten in excess. While it has been blamed for raising heart disease risk, some studies indicate it could benefit heart health.
Grass-fed vs. grain-fed
The feed of dairy cows can have a considerable effect on the nutritional quality of butter.
Grass-fed butter is made from the milk of cows that graze on pasture or are fed fresh grass.
In the United States, grass-fed dairy products comprise a tiny portion of the dairy sector. Most dairy cows are fed with commercial grain-based feeds (28).
In many other countries, such as Ireland and New Zealand, grass-fed milk products are much more common — at least during the summer months.
Grass-fed butter is higher in many nutrients than butter from cows fed processed, grain-based feeds or conserved grass (29).
A higher proportion of fresh grass in a cow’s diet increases the amount of healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids and CLA (29, 30, 31, 32, 33).
In addition, the content of fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants — such as carotenoids and tocopherols — is significantly higher in grass-fed dairy (34, 35).
As a result, butter from grass-fed cows may be a much healthier choice.
Butter from grass-fed cows is higher in many nutrients than butter from grain-fed cows and may be a healthier option.
The bottom line
Butter is a dairy product produced from milk fat.
While mainly composed of fat, it’s also rich in many vitamins, especially A, E, D, and K2.
However, butter is not particularly nutritious when considering its large number of calories.
Due to its high saturated fat content, it has been blamed for increased risk for weight gain and heart disease. Yet, several studies point to the contrary.
At the end of the day, butter is healthy in moderation — but excessive consumption should be avoided.