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Butter May Not Increase Risk of Heart Disease, But That Doesn't Mean It's a Health Food

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A new study from Tufts University found eating butter does not increase your risk for heart disease, but that doesn't grant permission for buttery splurging. Saturated fats, like those found in butter, can increase total cholesterol, which can block arteries in your body and heart. Moderation is still key.

Butter earns the ire of many healthy eating advocates. It's high in saturated fat, a nutrient that can drive up total cholesterol, especially harmful LDL, and block arteries in the heart and body. Most dietary guidelines warn against eating saturated fats, which are found in animal products like butter. However, a new study from Tufts University suggests that the vitriol is misplaced. In fact, the study says, butter does not increase heart disease risk. It may even protect against another deadly disease, diabetes.

The study, which was published this week in PLOS ONE, analyzed nine papers that included more than 600,000 people in 15 countries. It's a large study, but the researchers caution these findings "do not support a need for major emphasis in dietary guidelines on either increasing or decreasing butter consumption." They also point out that additional research is needed to better understand the relationship between butter and these conditions.

The country's fat-phobic fears of the 80s and 90s swept butter out of foods and fridges in favor of refined starches, partially-hydrogenated oils, and sugars. The problem with that, of course, is it led to an increase in rates of obesity and metabolic disorders like diabetes.

Butter, like other saturated-fat rich foods, including bacon and red meat, is a "middle-of-the-road" food. It's neither healthy nor unhealthy if eaten in moderation. It's better than refined starches and sugar. It's not as good as heart healthy fats, like extra-virgin olive oil and plant-based fats. In other words, it's what we do with butter that makes it a real villain. That includes piling it into potatoes with cream, melting it for a hefty pour over popcorn, or thickly slathering it on biscuits and bread.

Photo: Jennifer Causey

Chicken and Carrots with Lemon Butter Sauce

The study did connect butter consumption to a slight increase in mortality. For every tablespoon a person consumed each day, the researchers found a one percent increased mortality risk. Here again, the research points less to the butter than to other factors in a person's life. Specifically people who eat copious amount of butter tend to have worse diets and lifestyles.

There's no denying butter's indulgent qualities. But with 7.3g of saturated fat per tablespoon (30 percent of the USDA's daily recommendation), finding a balance is key. The beauty of such a concentrated source of flavor is how little you really need to make a dramatic impact. A few tablespoons is enough to finish an entire pan of meat and veggies to serve a family of four. Add butter to plants like whole grains and greens to encourage consumption with picky palates. Finish off a pan of lean protein or fish to boost flavor. In other words, use it sparingly but smartly in dishes where no other fat will do.