by Marion Nestle
Jul 6 2016

No, butter is not back (eat in moderation, please)

I like butter as much as you do—and definitely more than margarine—but Time Magazine took it to an extreme with its cover story last year on how scientists (they are so dumb) got it wrong.

Hype alert: any time you read that science got it wrong, be skeptical.  Maybe they did, but it’s more likely that the science is still incomplete.

Time Magazine is really dug in on the butter issue.  It continues to insist that scientists were wrong about saturated fats.  Indeed, Time says, its case against saturated fats has just gotten even stronger.

On what basis?  A new study with the provocative title, “Is butter back?”   The study concludes:

This systematic review and meta-analysis suggests relatively small or neutral overall associations of butter with mortality, CVD, and diabetes.

It comes as no surprise that a single food like butter is not linked to a higher risk of heart disease. The highly respected Cochrane Collaboration’s meta-analysis of 15 randomized clinical trials concluded that replacing saturated fat (from all sources) with polyunsaturated fats lowers the risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular events. (That finding is consistent with clinical studies on blood cholesterol levels and well-designed analyses of observational studies). One would not expect any single food to matter, since people who eat butter don’t necessarily eat an overall diet that is high in saturated fat.

No, butter is not back says the Harvard School of Public Health:

What the headlines miss is that in a meta-analysis such as this, there is no specific comparison (i.e. butter vs. olive oil), so the default comparison becomes butter vs. the rest of the diet. That means butter is being compared to a largely unhealthy mix of refined grains, soda, other sources of sugar, potatoes, and red meat…Here is the most important takeaway from this study not making headlines: Butter, a concentrated source of saturated fat, is still a worse choice than sources of healthy unsaturated fats such as extra virgin olive, soybean, or canola oils.

And just published is the Harvard group’s latest report on the diet and health of tens of thousands of nurses:

Different types of dietary fats have divergent associations with total and cause-specific mortality. These findings support current dietary recommendations to replace saturated fat and trans-fat with unsaturated fats.

Even the “Is butter back?” investigators temper their conclusions:

These findings do not support a need for major emphasis in dietary guidelines on either increasing or decreasing butter consumption, in comparison to other better established dietary priorities; while also highlighting the need for additional investigation of health and metabolic effects of butter and dairy fat.

Time Magazine:  Your science writers need to do a better job of reading the literature and putting new studies in context.

Readers: consider “scientists are wrong” (and, by implication, “we are right”) to be a red flag.  Saturated fat is one nutrient in diets that contain many, and studies that examine the effects of one nutrient without considering the total diet—and calorie balance—are highly likely to require further research.   In the meantime, enjoy butter—in moderation, of course.