The Great Butter Revival—All Buttered Up

butter on crumpets
Winfried Heinze/Getty Images

When we use the expression to “butter up,” the term denotes one thing and connotes another. Both meanings figure in the misleading contention that “butter is back.”

The connotation of the idiom is praise or flattery. Flattery, in this context, is used to soften up any likely resistance. The exaggerated revival of butter plays to eagerly expectant palates just as flattery plays to a hungry ego, hurrying them past any nagging concerns they may have.

The denotation is, predictably, more self-evident. Butter is fat, fat is grease, and grease is greasy. Grease, famously, is applied to skids in another idiom to achieve much the same goal: speed a person or process along, past relevant questions or valid concerns. Both meanings of “buttering up” are all about getting up, over, and past any resistance before it has time to gather itself.

The much-hyped contention that “butter is back,” meaning that the addition of butter to our diets is apt to be overtly beneficial, is itself a beneficiary of just such buttering-up. It flatters butter, and it greases the skids by generally ignoring the critical consideration: compared to what?

One Does Not Eat Butter Alone

It’s certainly true that there are no studies to show that butter, by itself, plays a major role in cardiovascular disease in actual people over time. But how could there be? Butter is a condiment; it’s almost never a large percentage of total calories, even in the diets of its most devoted adherents.

Those devoted adherents, however, may have other and related diet proclivities. Maybe they eat a lot of white bread along with that butter. Maybe they eat a lot of cheese, and cream as well. Maybe their diets are also high in meat.

Such dietary patterns certainly have been decisively and consistently associated with increased risk of heart disease and premature death in general.

But in such context, butter can only be judged along with the company it keeps. The transgressions of the whole dietary pattern cannot be pinned on butter.

Alternatively, a butter enthusiast might have a diet generally abundant in chickpeas, lentils, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. The use of clarified butter—ghee—in some traditional Indian cuisine could exemplify this. So, too, could the inclusion of butter in some of the most healthful variants on the French diet theme, which are as noteworthy for an abundance of vegetables, fruits, lentils, nuts, and, at times, fish and seafood as for butter or an occasional croissant.

In such context, overall diet tends to protect against heart disease and premature death, and here, it is not possible to attribute such benefits to butter specifically, nor say exactly how much butter, in small quantities, attenuates them.

What Do We Know?

The world’s healthiest diets, meaning the diets of the world’s healthiest, longest-lived, most vital and disease-free people, consistently contain little if any butter; little if any dairy overall; and low levels of saturated fat. When saturated fat at the population level is reduced, by swapping out both meat and dairy sources for more plant foods and fish, rates of heart disease plummet, and life expectancy increases.

In randomized controlled trials, when an olive-oil-rich Mediterranean diet replaces a relatively butter-rich, standard European diet, rates of heart disease plummet. In general, the higher the percentage of calories from saturated fat from the usual sources, meat and dairy including butter, the higher the rates of both heart disease and premature death. The higher the percentage of calories from unsaturated fat from the usual sources—notably nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil, avocado, and fish—the lower the rates of both heart disease and premature death.

When the “butter is back” claim meets the above reality check, the response can at times be: “Well, yeah, but butter is still back relative to the white bread on which it’s spread.” Actually, studies that have looked at the matter directly have concluded that excesses of saturated fat from the usual sources, including butter, appear to be almost identically harmful to excesses of refined carbohydrate and added sugar.

In other words, at best, the butter and the white bread tie for bad marks. But just as important: Under what real-world condition does anyone choose between bread and butter? To the contrary, the bread invites the butter, and your prize is the harms of each compounding the other.

Let’s not exaggerate those harms in either case. In the context of a generally healthful diet, neither the occasional baguette, nor the occasional butter, is cause for worry; both may, in fact, be reasons for delight. I happen not to like butter, but a crusty, just-out-of-the-oven baguette? Pure joy. I just indulge very occasionally.

More to Consider

So, if inclined to include some butter in your diet for pleasure, I see little basis to protest on the basis of health. But I do want to raise another relevant concern. Leaving aside the specialty butters, the standard variety means dairy cows. The environmental impact of raising cattle for dairy, and even more so for meat, is not just high, but off-the-charts high relative to almost anything else. There are important ethical concerns, too. These concerns should be appended to the already compelling basis in health to prefer olive oil most if not all of the time.

We hear often these days that “butter is back,” but rarely hear exactly why, or instead of what. When those matters are addressed, the original claim is quickly as riddled with caveats and provisos as Swiss cheese is with holes. I think there is also a case to make that butter can’t be back, because it was never gone.

I’ll take the bracingly fresh taste and genuinely healthful properties of cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil every time. I recommend you do, too. If you love butter, eat it as a treat, but not for health.

Be careful, in other words, when being buttered up, to watch both your diet, and your step—those skids are very slippery.