Butter is one of America’s favorite spreadable foods with each person estimated to eat more than 5 pounds each year. According to a new study, published in the journal PLOS One, it may not be all that bad for us. A team of researchers from Friedman’s School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University decided to search for a potential link between a buttery diet and disease or death.

"Even though people who eat more butter generally have worse diets and lifestyles, it seemed to be pretty neutral overall," said the study’s first author Laura Pimpin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, in a statement. "Butter may be a ‘middle-of-the-road’ food: a more healthful choice than sugar or starch, such as the white bread or potato on which butter is commonly spread and which have been linked to higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease; and a worse choice than many margarines and cooking oils - those rich in healthy fats such as soybean, canola, flaxseed, and extra virgin olive oils."

To figure out how butter plays a role in our health, Pimpin and her colleagues systematically searched through nine different studies, which included a large number of participants (636,151). They found, after looking at each person’s daily diets over time, those who ate more butter didn’t really increase their risk for cardiovascular disease or Type 2 diabetes, nor did it lead to an earlier death. But that may not be the reason butter has become a cooking culprit in America’s obese society; instead it’s what butter is eaten with.

Butter Diet
Diets containing bounties of butter may not be healthy, but researchers believe a modest amount won't hurt. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

“Butter intake is often added to refined carbohydrates, such as bread,” Pimpin told Medical Daily. “Intake of these foods has been shown to have negative association with health. Use of butter, which has high saturated fat content, is a less healthful choice than plant-based oils. ”

Researchers found people tend to eat between one-third of a serving and 3.2 servings of butter per day (one serving is equivalent to 1 tablespoon). According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 Guidelines for Americans, butter should be used sparingly, however consumers can limit their intake of butter to 6 teaspoons (1 tablespoon is equivalent to 2.5 teaspoons).

“I hope this study highlights the need to look at foods, rather than isolated nutrients when investigating the relationship of diet with health,” Pimpin said. “The next step is to look at patterns of food consumption, and how that relates to health. This study should also highlight the fact that there is limited evidence, and more research is needed to inform the public on practical, food-based approaches of improving their health. ”

By looking at how butter is eaten, such as melted into pasta, spread onto toast, or eaten in slices of potato, future research efforts will be able to unravel the negative repercussions of the beloved saturated fat and identify healthier alternatives. According to the American Heart Association, eating foods that contain saturated fats raise cholesterol levels, which could put you at an increased risk for heart disease and stroke. But with the advent of Tuft’s new findings, Americans may need to worry less about the thickness of their pats of butter and more about what it’s melting onto.

Butter lovers will have to wait to find out the definitive conclusion, because as of now the jury is out. According to the study’s senior author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, in a statement: "Butter should neither be demonized nor considered ‘back’ as a route to good health."

Source: Mozaffarian D, Pimpin L, Wu JHY, Haskelberg H, and Gobbo LD. Is Butter Back? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Butter Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Total Mortality. PLOS One. 2016.