To answer the question, we have to examine why butter has been considered unhealthy in the past. The idea that butter is unhealthy stems from the lipid hypothesis. This theory correlates saturated fats and cholesterol in the diet with coronary heart disease and was first proposed in the 1950s.
While research has always shown conflicting information about the link between saturated fats and coronary heart disease, this idea gained ground and may have peaked in the 1990s. I have a food magazine of my mother's from that time period. The recipesare indeed low in all types of fat (and avoid saturated fat as if it would cause the plague), but were ironically full of sugar. That was the same time period that I remember my sister and mother harping on my dad for adding a pat of butter to his oatmeal in the morning. "You are going to give yourself a heart attack!" they exclaimed with horror. Saturated fat was viewed even with fear and horror.
Since the 1950s, saturated fats have been replaced with vegetable oils and at the same time, heart disease, cancer, obesity and other health concerns have increased dramatically. While there are a lot of nuances to this issue and some conflicting evidence, I don't think any of us should be impressed with the statistics and results of increasing our vegetable oil consumption and decreasing our saturated fat consumption. The fact is, I believe that saturated fats are a natural and even needed part of our diet.
Related: Is saturated fat bad for you?
For a more thorough examination of this important issue, I recommend reading "Real Food," by Nina Planck, "Nourishing Traditions" by Sally Fallon Morrell, or read this articleon the history of the lipid hypothesis and some of the more recent politics behind this theory. I have been happy to see that there has been more skepticism about the lipid hypothesis in recent years, with many well-respected doctors and journalists questioning it, refuting it and writing about it.
But let's look closer at the butter-vs.-margarine (which is a solidified vegetable oil spread) debate.
The problems with margarine are various. First, margarine was originally full of trans fats, which now everyone agrees is terrible for you. Thankfully, just about all of the brands have reformulated their spreads to take the trans fats out. I think that it's an interesting piece of history: when we moved away from a historically appreciated food (butter), and modern margarine was promoted as a healthier choice, we were deceived into consuming a spread that we now know contained a terribly unhealthy substance for us. And you know what they say about history repeating itself.
But let's take margarine without the trans fat. Here are the ingredients for the popular "I Can't Believe it's Not Butter" spread.
Ingredients: Vegetable oils, Buttermilk (5%), Water, Salt (1.5%), Emulsifiers: mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids, Sunflower lecithin, Preservative: potassium sorbate, Vitamin E, Citric acid, Flavouring, Colour: beta-carotene, Vitamins A & D
The first thing that we should notice is that this is a processed food. Compare it to butter, which has a simple ingredient list of butterfat and salt, for most brands.
The second thing you should notice is the first ingredient, vegetable oil. Consider that we are not healthier since we replaced saturated fats with vegetable oils. Consider that these vegetable oils are most likely from genetically modified corn or soy, a new-fangled, invasive method of changing plant's genes. Consider the additives and preservatives needed to make a naturally liquid substance (vegetable oil) mimic the texture of butter.
Related: Good fat, bad fat: What's good for your body also good for your brain
But what about a better, healthier spread? Earth Balance produces "buttery spreads" of higher quality. Let's look at the ingredients for the extra virgin olive oil spread.
Ingredients: Natural oil blend (palm fruit, canola, soybean, extra virgin olive, and flax), filtered water, Contains less than 2% of sea salt, pea protein, natural flavor (plant derived from corn), sunflower lecithin, lactic acid (derived from sugar beets), and annatto for color.
While this is their extra virgin olive oil spread, notice that it is one of the last ingredients in the oil ingredient section. This means that it doesn't contain as much of that oil. I'm fine with palm fruit oil, as long as it is not hydrogenated. (It is a plant source of saturated fats, by the way. So you aren't getting away from all saturated fats by using this spread.) But soybean oil, if it is not organic, is generally genetically modified and it is a very refined (that is, processed oil). The natural flavor derived from corn and the lactic acid derived from sugar beets also have a high likelihood of being genetically modified. Beyond the GMO issue, this spread does use refined ingredients that had to be made in a factory. It uses refined oils that are definitely less than ideal. Plus, all of these spreads contain a high amount of omega-6 fatty acids. The over use of vegetable oils has made most Americans omega-3 deficient, which can lead to a host of health issues.
But let's look at butter. First, butter quality does count. If you buy typical butter at the store, you will be buying pesticide-laden butter. Why? Pesticides and other toxins concentrate in the cream, which is what butter is made of. For that reason, butter is one of the food items I consider especially important to buy organic. Butter made from a conventionally raised cow is also pure white. This is a sign of low vitamin A levels, and for that reason many dairies dye their butter a light yellow color. I personally like my butter without the dye, thank you very much.
Related: Food dyes pose rainbow of risks
But what does that yellow color we associate with quality butter mean? Why do we still prefer a yellow butter to a white butter? Well, grass-fed cows, especially cows grazing on fast-growing green grass, produce a yellowish cream that is made into a yellow butter. That yellow color is from the high vitamin A content. Unlike the artificial vitamins added to margarine, this is a "whole food" vitamin A, naturally produced by nature. It is also a good source of vitamin E and selenium (another vital antioxidant). Our preference for having "buttery spreads" and our butter yellow goes back to an innate preference for food of higher nutritional value.
Butter is the real deal; everything else just tries to mimic it.
The only so-called concern with butter is the saturated fat. After reading about this issue, I am not convinced by the lipid hypothesis, so I eat high-quality butter with no fear.
However, for those with dairy allergies or a need to refrain from dairy, use extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil and other natural oils. If you want to make a spread, experiment with blending naturally firm oil (like coconut oil) with a mild extra virgin olive oil. Because you aren't adding in "natural flavors," it won't taste like butter, but you will at least know that you are consuming real food, not a factory-produced product.
"If you are afraid of butter, use cream!" - Julia Child