Is butter bad for you? Here's the healthiest butter to keep in your fridge.

Is butter bad for us?

Butter alternatives like margarine have been around for ages, but many gained popularity in the 80s and 90s during a fat-free frenzy. The message to consumers was clear: fat was the enemy.

Take the iconic spray butter ad series in the 90s featuring Italian-American actor and model Fabio Lanzoni. In a soft-lit, fantasy world, a young woman laments (or dreams, depending on which commercial you’re watching) about the evils of butter. Enter long-haired hunk Lanzoni wielding a spray bottle of margarine and even you’ll say – “I can’t believe it’s not butter!”

What is the healthiest butter?

Butter can absolutely fit into a healthy diet, says registered dietitian Abbey Sharp, and grass-fed butter is the healthiest butter money can buy.

Before we get into the health benefits of this type of butter, let’s break down the fat content in butter in general. Butter is made of mostly saturated fat, though there is a certain percentage of monounsaturated fats. While saturated fat has been historically demonized as unhealthy, studies have found no significant link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease.

Unsaturated fats, however, are highly regarded as the healthier option – they are heart-healthy and increase high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol.

Butter also contains short-chain fatty acids like butyric acid that have benefits for gut health and potentially weight management, Sharp says. It has conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid that has anti-cancer and anti-obesity properties.

When butter comes from grass-fed cows, you get more of these benefits.

“Because the cows are fed grass as opposed to corn, their feed itself has higher amounts of Vitamin K2 and the grass actually has higher levels of short-chain fatty acids and omega-3s,” Sharp says, adding that corn or grain feed will typically have a higher percentage of omega-6s fats.

Grocery store butter aisles carry “light” butter marketed to be healthier than regular butter, but Sharp says it’s not that simple. In reality, light butter is just regular butter with air or water whipped into it to hold its shape.

“It’s lower in calories and fat only because it’s watered down,” Sharp says. “It might work for spreading on your toast, for example, but if you’re cooking with it, you’re just going to have to add more oil anyway.”

And while grass-fed butter is the healthiest choice to keep in your fridge, Sharp says the best way to incorporate butter and oil into your daily diet is to get a diverse, balanced array.

“All different fats and oils, including butter, olive oil, avocado oil … all have their own unique fatty acid profile, and each of those fatty acids has their own unique benefits,” Sharp says. “So we don’t want to be focusing in on any one of them in excess; ideally we want to be trying to get a variety as much as possible.”

For example, Sharp says she might wake up and cook breakfast in a mixture of butter and either avocado oil or olive oil. Butter has a low smoke point, which means you don't want to cook at high temperatures with it but it has nutritional benefits you don’t want to miss out on. Later in the day, she might use a good quality flax seed oil in her salad because it’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids. For a dessert later on, she’ll bake with coconut oil because she likes the flavor it adds.

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Is butter bad for you?

No, butter is not bad for you, though butter substitutes have certainly tried to promote butter as unhealthy for decades.

“This stems from a time when we were really taught to fear saturated fat and fat in general … this was during a time when margarine gained popularity because the messaging was all about saturated fat being so bad for your health,” Sharp says.

Saturated fat is not directly responsible for heart disease or mortality, and can safely be included in diets, according to a 2022 study published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology.

“We know, of course, that replacing saturated fat with fiber-rich foods or polyunsaturated fats may be advantageous, but we don’t want to be replacing it with more highly processed carbohydrates that we were previously taught to do,” Sharp says.

If sodium intake is your concern, try buying unsalted butter so they can control the amount that goes in.

“Salted butter was something that people bought as a convenience,” Sharp says. “Generally speaking, I think it’s better to buy unsalted products and then add sodium or add your seasoning afterward.”

Margarine vs. butter

Margarine is a lasting impact of diet culture’s fear of fats, Sharp says. It’s not necessarily healthier for you, even if you really “can’t believe it’s not butter.”

“When we created margarine, we created trans fats, so a lot of the original stick margarines contain trans fats,” Sharp says. “That said, most margarines today use a different technology to create unsaturated fats, so it’s not as big of a concern.”

Trans fats are usually found in the form of partially hydrogenated oil and are known to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and type two diabetes.

There’s nothing wrong with margarine that doesn’t contain partially hydrogenated oil, though it does lack certain beneficial fatty acids that regular butter has, like butyric and myristic acid. Margarine is, however, lower in saturated fats than butter.

“If your doctor has told you (they) want you to reduce your reliance on saturated fat, margarine can be a great option,” Sharp says. “But it is high in omega-6s which most people still do get a lot of.”

Omega-6s are inflammatory when you consume an excess, imbalanced ratio of them compared to omega-3 fatty acids. North American diets are skewed to consume more omega-6s, which are found in highly processed foods, Sharp says, so we don’t need to be consuming more omega-6s than we already do.

The same goes for plant-based, or vegan buttery spreads which are often made the same way as margarine by combining water and oil. If you’re buying butter alternatives, take a look at the back of the package at the type of oil it’s made with.

Plant-based butter made with avocado or olive oil is a healthier choice, but be aware that many companies promote “made with olive oil” spreads that contain a little bit of olive oil and mostly canola, vegetable or safflower oil.

“It is a bit of a marketing ploy,” Sharp says. “If you’re not comfortable with cooking with a lot of canola oil or palm fruit oil, then you probably want to avoid these.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is the healthiest butter? Here's the best to keep in your fridge.