In an unexpected twist, the butter seems to be back to menu. After years of being a maligned ingredient that many people feared, butter has now become the latest food trend on social media, thanks to the recent popularity of “butter boards”.
These are sort of the meatless equivalent of a charcuterie platter. The butter is whipped then spread on a cutting board, sprinkled with a variety of toppings – from sweet to savory – and served with a side dish of your choice (like bread or a toasted baguette).
But despite being delicious, butter is still full of saturated fats – which many of us know can be harmful to our health. Here’s what you might want to consider before concocting your own butter board.
Is butter really that bad?
Butter is made from cream, the fat-rich part of milk. Although it is usually made from cow’s milk, it can also be made from other milks such as goat’s milk.
The reason butter has been considered off-limits for so many years is that it is one of the ultimate sources of saturated fat. Butter is about 80% fat, of which about two-thirds is saturated fat. It contains few other nutrients.
Saturated fats should be avoided in large amounts as they are linked to many health problems, including heart disease and shorter life expectancy. Clinical tests have also shown that saturated fat can have negative effects on blood cholesterol levels.
With regard to butter alone, it seems that its consumption has a relatively weak or neutral effect on the risk of heart disease. But research comparing butter to olive oil (another source of saturated fat) found that butter can increase levels of LDL cholesterolwhich is sometimes called “bad” cholesterol because it is linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
But the majority of the butter that many of us eat in our diets comes from other foods like cookies, cakes and pastries. Besides butter, these foods also tend to be high in sugar, while being low in other nutrients. High intakes of these types of foods are also linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
All in all, sharing a platter of butter with friends once in a while is unlikely to do much harm to your health. But doing it often, or eating very large amounts, could raise cholesterol levels and somewhat increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
It’s also worth keeping in mind what toppings you serve your butter platter with. Some foods (such as processed or cured meats) also contain saturated fat and should only be eaten occasionally.
Alternatives to butter
As butter is high in calories and high in fatsome people may want to consider using butter alternatives for the base of their butter board.
The first substitute many people might turn to is margarine. Margarine is chemically very similar to butter. Depending on the product however, it only contains about 40%-70% fatmaking it a lighter alternative with a possibly similar taste.
In the past, the processes needed to make margarine solid resulted in the production of trans fats, which have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. But these processes have since been improved so that the margarine no longer contains trans fat. It can therefore be a good option for people who are wary of the amount of fat they consume.
Another alternative people can consider using is ghee, also known as clarified butter. A staple of Indian cuisine, it is still made from milk, but the fat is much more concentrated because most of the water has been simmered. This means it won’t have the same creamy texture as butter.
Grass-fed ghee is as high in saturated fat as butter. It also contains naturally produced trans fat. However, these trans fats are different from the industrially produced types that are bad for our health. But since ghee contains more calories than butter, it might not be the best choice for a butter board, especially if you’re looking for the best flavor.
Cultured butter can also be a choice for your butter board. This is made from cream that has been fermented like yogurt. However, no research to date has examined whether the probiotics in cultured butter provide the same health benefits as those in yogurt and other fermented foods. Nutritionally, it contains the same amount of fat and calories as regular butter.
Overall, the butter isn’t bad. But since it is very high in calories and cholesterol, you may want to try not to consume too much of it. Sharing a butter board with friends or loved ones once in a while is unlikely to have a long-term negative impact on your health.