The Raw Truth
by Mollie Doyle
As far as I’m concerned, butter should be a food group. In my mind and mouth (and, I’d argue, everyone else’s) it makes every food taste better. But for the past few decades, we have demonized the spread, blaming it for everything from our expanding waistlines to our clogged hearts.
I was thrilled to read in a new article published by the Annals of Internal Medicine that saturated fats, such as the kind in butter, do not actually heighten our risks for coronary disease. After analyzing 76 studies of about 650,000 people, a group of scientists across medical institutions and continents found that butter is, actually, good for you. Mark Bittman, citing the study, rejoiced on March 25 in the New York Times that “Butter is Back!” Time’s June 23 cover blared: “Eat Butter.” But I wondered, “Just how good is it?” In other words, how much can I really eat? And what kind of butter, exactly?
A week after the Bittman article came out, I happened to be driving to New York with my friend, chef Jan Buhrman. Jan, a leader of nutritional workshops on-Island and around the country, was a fortuitously knowledgeable resource on the topic (and, a big fan of butter). She emphasized to me that consumers should try butter made from grass-fed cows, explaining that these cows produce milk with more conjugated linoleic acid, which some scientists claim support the immune system, reduce inflammation and strengthen bone mass. Grass-fed milk also has a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids, along with a variety of vitamins and minerals.
There is much debate among scientists, doctors, dairy farmers, and milk drinkers about the advantages and disadvantages of raw milk, and that debate extends to butter. Opponents of raw milk and raw milk products, the F.D.A. among them, argue that while nutritional value might be altered through pasteurization, destroying any potentially harmful bacteria is more important. Jan, an advocate of butter made from raw milk, believes that the nutrition factor is key. At the risk of completely oversimplifying the matter, she and other raw milk advocates argue that milk is perfect in its raw form—you get pure, unadulterated vitamins, minerals, fats and protein made from the 20 essential amino acids humans need to function, all in one glass.
I talked to Jan’s friend, Dr. John Bagnulo, a self-described “naturalist and nutritionist” and another raw milk advocate. He explained to me that butter from the raw milk of grass-fed cows also contains the Wulzen factor, an “anti-stiffness” element. Dutch researcher Rosalind Wulzen found that this hormone-like substance protects against calcification of the joints—degenerative arthritis—as well as hardening of the arteries, cataracts and calcification of the pineal gland. The bad news, according to Dr. Bagnulo is that this compound is destroyed during pasteurization.
Even when we’re talking about this ideal butter—raw milk butter from grass-fed cows—Jan cautions that not all grass-fed cows are created equal. “Many people I know only drink raw milk from Jersey and Guernsey cows,” she says. The milk from these breeds often has the A2 protein, as opposed to the much more common A1 pro- tein generally found in high-producing Holstein cows. Keith Woodford’s Devil in the Milk explained that A2 beta-casein is the beta-casein cows have produced for about 10,000 years and has no known negative health effects. But in the past few thousand years, a mutation occurred in some European dairy herds that changed the beta-casein, transforming it from the amino acid proline to one called histidine. This variation in the chain caused the amino acid to act differently on the body, and the new A1 beta-casein, which is often abbreviated as BCM-7, has been linked to type 1 diabetes, heart disease, autism, and other serious non-communicable diseases. The bottom line? Ideally, we should all be eating grass- fed butter made from raw milk coming from A2 herds.
I must confess that at this stage of my research, I felt disheartened. Butter contains all of this healing potential and power, but our breeding practices and commercial processing destroys much of it. How many of us have access to raw milk and the time to make raw butter?
Very few, it turns out. Talking with Eric Glasgow of The Grey Barn helped me understand the economics of why we as a culture do not foster A2 herds and pasteurize our milk. The reality of having an all-A2 herd would be exorbitantly expensive—each calf and cow that he might buy would need to get a $30 tissue test performed by a lab in California to determine if the cow is A2. And beyond that, an A2 cow does not necessarily breed another A2 cow. Even if he were to invest in an A2 herd, Eric tells me that selling butter made from their milk doesn’t make economic sense. “We used to sell our cream for $10 a quart, and one quart of cream makes one pound of butter,” he said. “So, if we took our cream, used three hours of labor to make it into butter, then added in the price of packing, it would cost at least $13 or $14 per pound.” Very few people want to pay that much for one pound of butter.
Since there’s no raw butter for sale on the Island (and with the amount of butter my household uses, I’m not inclined to buy raw milk from Mermaid Farm or The Grey Barn to shake up my own), what about consuming store-bought butter? John Bagnulo told me, “Obviously, organic butter from grass-fed milk is better. Kerry Gold for instance.” And these butters do have vitamin A, which helps thyroid function and strengthens your immune system, and vitamin D, which supports bone health. Regular store-bought butter even has anti-cariogenic effects, which means that it helps prevent tooth decay. And, maybe most importantly, we now know that butter is not the cause of coronary disease—the reason we were told to avoid it in the first place.
Amid the discussions about the priorities and importance of A2, grass-fed cows, and the question of health when including butter in one’s diet, the thing that almost every person I talked to could agree upon is the taste and the richness it brings to any food. And, if you really think about it, taste is sometimes the best judge of what is really good.
As for how much butter to eat? Apparently (and unfortunately), a rational amount—a pat on one’s bread or corn—is enough. But, no matter what kind of information comes my way, I must confess that I will always indulge when it comes to butter. I love it. And love often leads to irrational behavior.