Butter is a dairy product and one of the most concentrated types of milk derivate. There are several varieties of butter available but the most common one found in stores has a content of fat of over 80%, while the rest consists of 16 or 17% water, as well as a small amount of 1-2% other solid matter from milk. Sometimes, salt is added in order to improve the taste of butter, no more than 1 or 2% of the total. Sometimes, normal butter is labelled as sweet but there is also another type known as sweet cream, which might be salted despite the name. Light butter, with a lower content of fat, is also available in stores, and has between 40 and 60% fats. Other nutrients found in butter include vitamins A, D and E, which are soluble in fat, as well as calcium, phosphorous and proteins.
This food is known for its unique and special flavour. It is very difficult to reproduce because it consists of more than 120 individual compounds that influence it. The most important ones that have been identified are lactones, fatty acids, diacetyl, dimethyl sulfide and methyl ketones.
The composition of butter is mainly made up of triglycerides. Most of these are derived from palmitic, stearic, oleic, myristic and other types of fatty acids. The butter fat will always include an amount of fatty acids, but the exact quantity depends on the diet of the animal. In the scientific analysis of butter fat, the Reichert-Meissl number, also known as the Reichert-Wollny number, measures the amount of fatty acids.
Varieties of butter
Sweet cream butter can be salted, despite the name. It is sweet because all of the bacteria in the cream that could ferment the sugar in its composition are killed by pasteurization. As a result, it is sweeter and has a fresh and light taste. In the USA, this is the most common type of butter available in stores.
Cultured butter, as the name suggests, is prepared with the help of bacteria. These are allowed to work on the cream and ferment the sugars in its composition, before it is turned into butter. The result is an interesting flavour, with tart notes. Before modern methods of preservation, such as pasteurization and refrigeration, were widely available, cultured butter was the most common type because of its longer shelf life. It is no longer prepared by traditional methods, the cream is pasteurized first, in order to kill wild bacteria strains, and fermentation is achieved by injecting another culture afterwards.
Clarified butter, also known as ghee, is a special type of butter with a fatty content of almost 100%. It is prepared by heating the cream until almost all the water evaporates and only solid fats remain. It has a special taste and is a key cooking ingredient in the cuisines of the Middle East and India.
Spreadable butter is a modern variety designed to be easily spread on bread. Normal butter has a hard texture at cold temperatures, when it is taken out of the fridge. Adding vegetable oil to the butter mix helps with this issue, since these stay in liquid form even inside the refrigerator. A different method used by some producers is whipping either air or water into butter, which has the same effect and preserves the soft texture.
The term “butter” is frequently used for various spreadable products that are not diary-related, for example the ones made from nuts, fruits or vegetables. Some of these, especially those prepared from nuts like almonds or peanuts, actually have a very similar texture to real butter and are very rich in fats. Apple butter and others made from fruits and vegetables are prepared from a puree. They become spreadable after most of the water content is eliminated but their composition is very different and the fat content is low.
How to store butter
Butter is typically kept in the fridge at a temperature lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, otherwise it becomes rancid very fast. Exposure to light and oxygen accelerates the process, so it is a good idea to keep it in a dark location and well packaged. Tight wrapping is also important to stop the butter from being contaminated by other flavours.
If stored inside a refrigerator, butter lasts a maximum of four months. Freezing it is another option, which allows a longer storage of up to one year. If simply left at normal temperature, butter will not last more than a few days, although the exact period depends on its type, as well as the contact with air and light. Even simple measures can keep it fresh for several extra days, for example limiting exposure to heat and oxygen by covering it with a plate or a dedicated butter bell. When butter becomes rancid, its taste changes. If it is bitter or starts to smell badly, it should not be consumed.
One of the main nutrients in natural butter is carotene. This compound is found in generous amounts and has many health benefits, especially for the eyes. It can either transform into vitamin A or antioxidants, both being active at eye level. Around 60% of the carotene that we get from our food becomes antioxidants. These are considered to be very important because they can neutralize free radicals and stop them from damaging tissues. Antioxidants help our immune system become more effective. Vitamin A is soluble in fats, which allows it to reach membranes that are also fat-soluble. These include the digestive and urinary tracts and also organs such as the mouth, skin, eyes and throat. Vitamin A makes membranes healthier by increasing their rate of repair.
Another health benefit of vitamin A is the increased production of lymphocytes. These cells are the fighters in our defensive system against bacteria and viruses, so the immune reaction is strengthened. The effect is powerful against cold, flu and other common infections, but also treats very serious conditions such as AIDS.
Vitamin A is also essential for the functions of the thyroid gland, which is the key part of the human endocrine system and regulates many other body functions. A lack of vitamin A can cause hypothyroidism or other similar diseases, which in turn lead to other conditions. The thyroid gland produces a wide range of hormones that reach all parts of the body and regulate various processes. Vitamin A is the main vitamin present in butter and consuming it with moderation can provide an optimal amount of this nutrient. This can be very useful for people who suffer from thyroid problems.
In addition, beta-carotene and vitamin A seem to work well together. According to modern research, a good supply of these nutrients reduces the risk of prostate and colorectal cancer. Vitamin A might also prevent other forms of cancer, in particular breast tumours, but the studies haven’t been finished yet. The vitamin’s action against cancer seems to be caused by its antioxidant effect. It is known to delay metastasis by limiting the rate of cancer growth, since it causes tumour apoptosis, the scientific name for a spontaneous death of the cells that make up cancerous growths.
Butter also supplies a large dose of another compound that has been linked with cancer prevention: CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid). Since it is rich in several nutrients with a proven action against cancer, butter can clearly reduce the risk of this dreadful disease, if consumed with moderation. Smokers are a particular case and should avoid eating too much butter, because high amounts of vitamin A combined with smoking can lead to lung cancer. Vitamin C is a much safer antioxidant choice in this case.
Glycospingolipids are one of the many butter components with proven health benefits. It is a fatty acid that prevents several diseases of the digestive tract. It has the ability to strengthen the layers of mucus that protect various membranes, which prevents bacteria from attacking them. The reason why butter is so rich in glycosphinglolipids is that it is an animal product. Consuming butter can significantly boost the health of your stomach and digestive system in general and it should be included in the diet of people who suffer from such diseases.
Butter has been considered for a long time to be a risk for heart health. This view has started to change lately, after it became known that butter supplies the so-called good cholesterol, or HDL cholesterol. While the bad cholesterol, which is an omega-6 fatty acid, can cause strokes, heart attacks and atherosclerosis by blocking the arteries, the omega-3 fatty acid “good cholesterol” is able to counter its harmful effects. Being very rich in fats, butter actually consists of both good and bad cholesterol. The amount of HDL cholesterol is much higher in natural or organic butter than in margarine or various types of commercially-available processed butter.
We need a proper supply of fat-soluble vitamins, which are essential for our health. These can extract nutrients from the other type of vitamins, the ones soluble in water. Fat-soluble vitamins can boost sexual performance, according to several modern studies, but provide many other benefits as well. Vitamins A and D influence sexual development and also boost the growth of cells that make up our nervous system. A lack of vitamins A, D and E can cause sterility for both males and females, since the poor supply of nutrients prevents the normal sexual development. This even seems to be one of the major causes for the recent increase in the cases of sterility and sexual problems, after there has been a serious reduction in overall consumption of butter. It remains one of the best natural sources of fat-soluble vitamins and it should be part of any healthy diet.
Butter is a major source of beta carotene, a key compound for visual health. It acts on several levels and improves eye health by protecting them from damage. It boosts the rate of cell growth and damage repair, which in turn delays macular degeneration and reduces the risk of cataracts.
Several minerals are found in good amounts in butter, especially zinc, copper, manganese and selenium. These essential minerals play many roles inside the human body, in particular in the development and maintenance of our bone structure. Even if some are only required in trace amounts, they prevent many of the problems related to aging, for example arthritis or osteoporosis.
Essential minerals have many other functions, some of which have not been fully investigated. Manganese is needed in small amounts for the production of blood cells, where it plays a key role similar to the one of iron. Selenium is needed for both our immune system and the thyroid gland.