Butter over Donuts

The quick answer:  Good fats (like butyrate, found in butter) reduce cancer risk.  Bad fats (refined, used in deep fat fryers) increase cancer risk.  For better health, enjoy natural fats.



As you know, the Healthy Changes that constitute W of W Living rotate through 13 themes, and we visit each topic quarterly.  In the first four posts of the year we covered these themes:

  1. Slash consumption of added sugars (#1:  One soda drink per week, or less).
  2. Eat healthy fats (#2:  Nothing deep fat fried).
  3. Organize your cooking (#3:  Write a weekly menu).
  4. Eat grains whole (#4:  Breakfast cereals must have more natural fiber than sugar).
  5. Next week the topic is exercise (#5:  Exercise at least 30 minutes most days.)

Judging by the sparse comments on breakfast, I think most everyone gets the fiber>sugar rule and the importance of whole grains (that is, grains with their natural fiber intact).  So could we revisit the subject of fats, Healthy Change #2?

Fat and Cancer

It’s hard to think of a subject where the public has been given more bad information than fats.  The beautiful wife, for example, still prefers reduced fat milk even though I’ve pointed out a Harvard study linking such products with a higher risk of infertility.  It’s not that we’re seeking another child—six was plenty, for us at least.  But if a factory-processed food reduces fertility, might it not have other harmful effects?  It’s just hard to put a lifetime of erroneous information out of one's head. 

This week I learned two new things about fat and cancer: 

  • A study links prostate cancer to the processed fats used in deep fat fried foods. 
  • A natural fat found in butter, butyric acid, reduces the risk of cancer.

Toxic Deep Fat Fryer Fats

University of Washington scientists announced a study showing that men who consumed deep fat fried foods at least weekly, had about 1/3 higher risk of getting prostate cancer and an even higher risk of the more aggressive version.  This is a new and important finding.

Previous studies had indicted grilled meats (meats cooked at high temperature) as a risk factor for prostate cancer but we learn now that deep fat fried foods are even more dangerous.

Foods cooked at high heat contain toxic advanced glycation endproducts (AGE) which cause chronic inflammation, a risk for a host of disorders, including, beside some cancers, atherosclerosis (plaque and hardening of arteries associated with heart disease).  What makes the commercial deep fat fryers especially toxic is the number of days the fats remain in the fryers at high temperature.

Deep fat fried foods have previously been linked to cancers of the breast, lungs, pancreas, and esophagus. So Healthy Change #2  Never eat deep fat fried foods, deserves more emphasis.  To read more about the prostate cancer study go here

Butter Fights Cancer

I’ve learned to live without donuts and French fries, but it would be harder to give up butter.  Fortunately, there’s another reason to enjoy butter—butyric acid, a short-chain, 4-carbon, saturated fat (also known as butyrate).  Butter is the main dietary source of butyric acid, containing 3-4%. 

When certain rats are fed high-fat diets they get real fat.  But if butyrate is included, even though it’s a fat, they don’t.  Pretty interesting because who would have thought that eating butter might help humans avoid adding fat?  Butyrate also reduces inflammation, insulin levels (while improving insulin sensitivity), and the risk of metabolic syndrome. 

In addition to butter, we can produce butyrate in the G.I. tract from the fiber in our diet—bacteria living in the gut that help with metabolism section the fiber into butric acids.  So both butter and fiber are sources of butyrate.  In the Women’s Health Study, those who ate more foods rich in fiber had less inflammation, and fewer heart attacks.  Butyrate appears to also reduce the risk of breast and colorectal cancer.


One nutrition goal is to forget what we were told about fats.  We keep learning how natural fats are essential to good health, and how highly processed factory fats are harmful.  Enjoy healthy fats, including butter, olive oil, and coconut and palm oils.

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Reader Comments (6)

Perfect timing, as I've been recently considering the fats I regularly use in cooking. Here are my questions. I have nothing against butter, and use it every day. However, should I be concerned about the quality of the butter? It seems likely it comes from the same cows milk that are not grass-fed and maybe fed hormones. Should I try to buy organic butter? I haven't before because it is much more expensive than regular butter.

Also is refined coconut oil as healthy as unrefined? I like unrefined coconut oil, but the coconut flavor can be overwhelming in some food items. Refined coconut oil doesn't have as strong of a coconut flavor. What is the best oil to use for a neutral flavor in baked goods?

I use olive oil and sometimes butter in stove-top cooking (like sauteeing vegetables or cooking meat/poultry) and assume that's the best and tastiest option.

Thanks for any suggestions.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDenae

Bad information is everywhere, isn't it?
As a licensed Family Childcare Provider, the USDA Food Program requires that children over the age of 2 be given milk that is no more than 2% fat -- and they'd prefer Skim or 1%. I'm appalled that they are pushing a product that is linked to infertility!

I have tried to point out the error of this requirement, only to be put down with their reasoning: Homogenized milk is "processed", so all milk is a processed food. Oy vey.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLizA

Denae, thanks for the excellent questions.

Re: Butter
The quality of butter depends on the health of the cow, which depends on diet. We'd like to have butter from pastured cows. The USDA has a pasture feeding requirement for "organic" milk that is adjustable to the grass growing season. Basically, the cow must be pasture fed for the length of the local growing season but at least 120 days. During the growing season, at least 30% of the diet must be pasture grass. That's the "pasture-fed" part of the organic rules.

Weston Price spoke of the richness of butter from cows eating the spring grass in Switzerland, especially the high omega-3 and vitamin content. If I was going to pay the premium for pastured butter, I'd probably buy it during the spring season and buy enough to last a while. I haven't done this, freeze butter for storage, but I think it would be a good experiment.

Re: Coconut oil
It's true that coconut oil is sold either refined or virgin. The virgin is less processed but has more of the coconut flavor and aroma. We use "refined" coconut oil from Spectrum. I don't like that it comes in a plastic jar and there may be better choices available. We're still learning here.

Some (including Dr. Mary Enig) like the Omega brand, from a Washington state company that got its start selling flax seed oil. Omega claims that the virgin oil is produced from fresh coconuts within 3 days of harvest. I know that their "refined" coconut oils don't have the 3-day rule and the coconut meat, called "copra," can sit around and be contaminated which by itself makes refining necessary. I'm going to try the virgin coconut oil on our next purchase but perhaps some readers can share their experience.

It's like butter. It will take time for us to understand the bad stuff that happens to food on the way to market. Once people understand, they will demand better products. Then better products will appear. So we eat butter and coconut oil today but expect that if people keep pushing, better forms of these products will become available.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

Hi Liz A
I know how you feel, it's a little crazy. The reduced fat versions of milk were a defensive move by the dairy industry during the war against saturated fats. The war happened because saturated fats were falsely blamed for causing heart disease. The whole thing was simply tragic—we left a traditional fat in favor of partially hydrogenated solvent refined vegetable oils.

The USDA is a better friend to the food industry than to the citizens. The reduced fat milks have certain additives that improve the texture and appearance and the USDA doesn't require the dairy industry to list these as ingredients. I think the idea was to present these more processed products as "pure" milk.

The main processes that affect milk include 1) pasteurization, 2) homogenization, 3) reformulation as reduced fat, and 4) the recent use of ultra pasteurization, which cooks the milk even more. I think there's a good fight in front of us to roll back unnecessary processes to get the healthiest milk possible.

January 31, 2013 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I buy the big containers of Country Crock "spread". Just now I'm realizing it doesn't actually say "butter". But it's not margarine either. Should I go back to the sticks of butter that are more pricey?

February 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHollie

Hi Hollie
I personally avoid factory products like the butter-flavored "spreads." When the public finally got the word about the danger of hydrogenated fats, the margarine companies needed a new factory process. The new process to replace hydrogenation is called "interesterification" and this is the usual method of making the new "spreads." Are these interesterified fats safe? In the short run they won't kill you, the FDA sees to that. But just like the trans fats, the long-term consequences of these man-made fats is unknown.

There is also concern about the artificial flavors used to give the "buttery" taste. One product is diacetyl and its use is being curtailed. So for me, it seems wise to stick with natural fats like butter. Best to you.

February 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

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