Humans have been eating butter for about 9,000 years, but in the last hundred it has had to fight for its place on our dining table. Vegetable oils like margarine have been hailed as the healthy alternative to a fattening, artery clogging, nutritionally void dairy oil since the early 1900s. The reason for this push has less to do with health (or truth) and a lot more to do with—you guessed it—lots and lots of money. However, the debate around butter is not as black-and-white as it may seem at first glance.
The very start of butter was a happy accident. A traveling herder with a bag of milk strapped onto one one his sheep found that the jostling of the animal over the long distance had transformed that milk into a thicker, creamier dairy delight. Much of the earliest butter came to be in this way, and was made from the milk of sheep or goats. This made a very rich butter, which was used in cosmetics, food, and even medicines — Ancient Romans would prescribe butter swallowed to aid the healing of a cough or spread over aching joints. Across the planet, it was frequently used as an offering to deities from Africa to Ireland. Today, much butter throughout the Middle East and Africa is prepared very similarly to the original batch: farmers will put milk in an animal hide container and tie it to livestock or a tree branch, shaking it until butter is formed.
In the Middle Ages of Europe, butter was wildly popular. Poor peasants held it in high esteem as an inexpensive form of nourishment and way of imparting a rich flavor into meat and vegetables. During the month of Lent — when eating butter became forbidden — the very wealthy would pay the Church for permission to continue eating it during this time. Butter’s popularity made this such a common practice that the Cathedral in Rouen, France built a tower with these tithes called the Tour de Beurre — The Butter Tower.
En route to the New World, pilgrims of the Mayflower brought multiple barrels of butter for their journey. It very quickly proved to be a massive staple in the American diet and farming culture. It was always salted for preservation, which kept it in meals year-round. Butter was such an important part of American meal planning that in 1916, when Nutritionist Caroline Hunt wrote the very first Government dietary guidelines (titled Food for Young Children) it was included as a necessary health food group to support the development of kids. Hunt insisted that children, who early in life depend on the fat from their mother’s milk, consume plenty of wholesome fats like butter on a daily basis. Interestingly, Hunt also maintained that children should consume “salad oils” like olive, peanut, and cottonseed in small amounts — even stating that they should be “trained to like it” by slowly incorporating these oils into recipes. By this time the American consumption of butter was at about a stick and a half per person per day.
THE RISE OF CRISCO
In the late 1800s, Procter & Gamble was a turning large profit making candles with hydrogenated cottonseed oil, which was a waste product of the textile market. Unfortunately for them, the invention of the lightbulb in 1880 was quickly making candles obsolete. In 1912, the company published a book that Weston A. Price Foundation president Sally Morell Fallon calls “a miracle of marketing”: the Crisco Cookbook. Using the same cottonseed oil they had been using for candles, Procter & Gamble was now making a food product. Magazine ads promoting the Crisco Cookbook made claims such as “Crisco makes pastry more digestible.” Marketing continued to promote the notions that butter was for rednecks, and that good mothers chose Crisco for the health of their children. “They knew how to push all the buttons,” notes Fallon.
By the time of the Great Depression, rationing made butter a lot more difficult to obtain. There was a greater uptick in the consumption of Crisco and Margarine — effectively Crisco with yellow food coloring — that came out of financial necessity. World War II caused even more economic turmoil for the American people, and butter dwindled in popularity.
In 1974, the six-year-old McGovern Committee broadened its focus from “making sure Americans eat enough” to “making sure Americans don’t eat too much.” In 1977 they released new dietary guidelines known as the McGovern Report, suggesting that people limit cholesterol and saturated fats as well as meat and dairy products. This was met with a strong public reaction and raised the profile of the committee. The American Medical Association protested the release of these guidelines, stating that it was much more beneficial for Americans to receive personalized advice from their doctors, rather than accept any blanket suggestions. The pressure led the committee to hold a number of hearings, eventually issuing a revised edition with gentler wording – though it still suggested the limitation of saturated fats and cholesterol.
By 1984, the USDA was issuing dietary guidelines that left butter in the small and well-known section of “Fats, Oils, and Sweets,” (including booze in this section) and declaring that Americans should only consume all of these items in moderation. Butter was officially no longer seen as a health food. In 1991, guidelines meant to apply to children aged two and older suggested almost no fats at all. Butter had seen a great change since Caroline Hunt’s notion that fats were key for the growth of healthy children. People's butter consumption had fallen from 18 pounds per year to only 4.1 pounds per year in less than a century after millennia of use.
Fallon abhors modern dietary guidelines — especially for children — and not mincing words, compares it to “genocide.” Members and chapter leaders of the Weston A. Price Foundation work for the resurgence of traditional foods and dietary practices. Nashville chapter leader Shawn Day states that the fall of butter has “always been a way to make money” by way of selling the much cheaper oil alternatives “without any of the overhead of dairy.” Both contend that cholesterol buildup is far more likely when using vegetable oil full of trans-fatty acids and high temperatures, which cause microscopic injuries in the arteries. Fallon mentions that cholesterol, in healthy forms, is necessary for hormone regulation.
THE HEART FAILURE ISSUE
A rise in heart failure over the last century is at the crux of the butter debate. In the earliest part of the 20th century, heart failure was an uncommon cause of death, with only .002% of Americans afflicted annually in 1930. By 1960, however, that number had jumped to .2% — an increase of 10,000%. Early commentators at this time blamed the newer fats of Crisco and margarine, but marketing and government dietary guidelines continued to push them. Today, heart failure affects more than 1.5% of Americans. Fallon agrees with the early commentators of 1960, stating that today she doesn’t see an end to this. “It’s hard to convince people that the experts are wrong.”
I was offered a balanced and very analytical take from Nutritionist Lee Murphy, MS-MPH, RDN, LDN, a Distinguished Lecturer at the Department of Nutrition at the University of Tennessee. She stated that animal fats are higher in saturated fats and promote higher blood cholesterol levels, which are “typically more promoting of heart disease.” However, she made a differentiation between “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol,” explaining that these fats raise both. “We don’t want to eliminate them,” she explained, although she added that if someone is at risk for heart disease it is a good idea to limit them. This harkens to the American Medical Association’s notion that diet should be suggested on an individual basis. Where a high-fat diet is great for people who are regularly active, it could be detrimental to someone with a very sedentary lifestyle.
Butter is, in fact, good for you — generally. Animal fats contain fat-soluble vitamins that are easily digested like A, D, E, and K. “Having fats assists in the bioavailability of those vitamins,” states Murphy. She notes that many today are deficient in vitamin D specifically and that vitamin D can be derived from the cholesterol in butter. Those fats are also required for health, promoting fullness, fortifying cell walls, and creating insulation in the body.
The much-contested vegetable oils come in a wide variety of qualities and effects on health. While Murphy notes that some vegetable oils will raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol, some simply lower both. There is also the key issue of omega-6 and omega-3. The balance of omega-6 to 3 is widely recommended to be at a ratio of 4 to 1 (4 units of omega-6 for every unit of omega-3). However, many high omega-6 vegetable oils — like canola, palm, rapeseed, and cottonseed — are found in a vast number of processed foods. This creates a great imbalance in that ratio, driving it to more commonly be 10 to 1, and sometimes as high as 30 to 1. “They are in everything,” declares Murphy. Humans need both: omega-6 helps our blood clot and omega-3 is anti-inflammatory. It’s easy to see where too much omega-6 can cause heart problems and other wildly common inflammatory illnesses.
Fallon picks apart some other very common seed oils. Coconut oil, she adds, is a healthy fat that can be consumed regularly, so long as it is pure and sourced properly, i.e. not mixed with other oils. Fallon also uses olive oil in her home cooking with regularity. With avocado oil, she warns: “you have to be careful.” While it is high in omega-3 and theoretically a great option, it is often mixed with other oils or rancid — use your discretion. Palm oil, however, is a no-go. Through the process of interesterification (which changes the melting properties of a substance to make it more desirable as a food) saturated fat is produced, taking away the only edge it could have over butter. Additionally, present omega-3s are fragile, breaking down into aldehydes (“as in formaldehyde” says Fallon) which “really should have never been allowed in the food supply at all.”
Knowing all of this, what do you do? This writer recommends the six decade old advice of the American Medical Association: don’t take blanket advice. Find a trusted doctor, evaluate your health, and decide for yourself what amounts of foods you need. Nutritionist Murphy also adds that two servings of fish a week are a good start to balancing out your omega-6 to omega-3. Foods, and I do mean foods in the most literal sense of “things that are edible naturally” can all be taken in balanced amounts and with careful awareness of your own body. While I’d say that cheaply-made, oil-filled, industrially processed foods could simply be wiped off the face of the earth, I still enjoy the occasional palm-oil ridden selection from the grocer’s bakery section. More often, however, I’ll cook with a rotation of butter, olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil at home. Balance. Murphy shares the sentiment, voicing that the three main tenets of any healthy body’s diet are “variety, balance, and nutrition.” It’s a lot easier than it sounds: don’t eat the same thing every day, eat things that give your body nutrients, and don’t eat too much of anything. In the words of a nutritionist, “Everything is about variation, really, and moderation.”