Spread the word: butter's good for you after all
In radical new research, scientists claim that this traditional family staple has unfairly been given a bad press for decades. Suzanne Campbell reports
In a provocative cover story, Time magazine urges us to ditch the health advice and eat butter. That's if you never stopped eating it anyway. The front page is one of several high-profile revivals of the once-feared dairy product in publications and scientific reviews worldwide.
A growing body of research, including several recent meta-studies, concurs that scientists were wrong to label saturated fats the enemy, claiming instead that sugar and processed foods are mainly to blame for obesity, diabetes and other weight-related diseases.
A major review of scientific studies on fat by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition came to the same conclusion: "There is no convincing evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease." The British Medical Journal, meanwhile, has challenged that the link between dairy produce and heart disease may not have been correct.
Whether you love butter or not – and who wouldn't with that mouthwatering, creamy, saltiness – we have been told for decades that besides cigarettes and alcohol, it is one of the worst things we could put into our bodies.
In Ireland, a world renowned exporter of grass-fed dairy-produce, eating butter was akin to dialling up the undertaker.
The campaign against butter was part of a dietary war on fat that was waged through the late 1970s up until very recently, when carbohydrates and refined sugars replaced fats as enemy number one.
Part of this is to do with food and health fashions, and the fat and anti-butter movement coincided with the rise of nutritionists (not a protected term like dietician), many of whom amplified the message that dairy produce and red meat were ruinous to health.
The premise was that fats clogged up your arteries and caused heart attacks. The type of fat considered most deadly was saturated fat – anything that is solid at room temperature like butter or lard, as opposed to sunflower or olive oil (considered good fats), which remain liquid at room temperature.
Aseem Malhotra, a London cardiologist writing in the British Medical Journal argues this insistence that saturated fats should be removed from our diet may have increased the risk of cardiovascular disease, because saturated fats have been found to be "protective".
He makes a strong case that dairy products such as butter and cheese contain vitamin D – a lack of which has been linked to increased heart disease – and calcium and phosphorus, which may have blood pressure-lowering effects.
Additionally, red meat, especially our Irish grass-fed beef and lamb, is rich in iron and CLAs – conjugated linoleic acids which have been linked to improved immune system and cancer inhibiting properties.
And while eating processed meat has been linked to higher rates of heart disease and diabetes, this is not the case with red meat.
Malhotra says that many people purchase low-fat products thinking they are better for their health or will help them lose weight, when many are full of sugar.
The "fat is bad" message was a boon for food manufacturers, who in the past 30 years came up with low fat-solutions they sold at a premium.
Many of these companies replaced natural animal or dairy fats with transfats, which are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil and which have a longer shelf life.
But unlike other fats, transfats lower your good cholesterol and raise your bad cholesterol. They are now being phased out of food manufacturing because they are considered so damaging to health.
Other "low fat" meals such as soups, lasagnes, and curries rely heavily on sugar and salt for flavour. So while cardiac-aware consumers were prescribed statins to lower their cholesterol and avoided butter, they were inadvertently consuming large calories of sugar and also hidden salt.
The other damaging costs of the war on butter has been to train teenage girls and younger consumers away from eating dairy. Alongside a current mania for "gluten-free" diets is also "dairy-free", despite many consumers not actually knowing the purpose of either.
For children, and in particular young girls, the anti-dairy message has been costly. Findings from a national survey show that 37pc of Irish girls and 28pc of boys aged from five to 12 had inadequate calcium intakes in their diet.
Another national survey shows that 42pc of Irish teenage girls and 23pc of Irish teenage boys have insufficient calcium.
National Dairy Council chief executive Zoe Kavanagh says: "This really is a very worrying trend because the majority of peak bone mass is achieved by the late teens. Between nine and 18, the food pyramid recommendations regarding the milk, yogurt and cheese food group increase to five dairy servings due to the importance of calcium at this stage."
The NDC is trying to address such issues with education initiatives such as the Moo Crew and Milk It Awards.
They aim to help children learn about the the importance of the milk, yogurt and cheese shelf within the context of a healthy, balanced diet and an active lifestyle.
Whether the campaign is successful or not, we could soon see dairy becoming most people's bread and butter once again.
Suzanne Campbell is a food writer and co-author of Basketcase with Philip Boucher Hayes