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Why Is Butter Yellow If Milk Is White?

October 29, 2016

Story at-a-glance

  • Butter-making is a multi-step process, starting with cows, which eat grass and flowers containing beta-carotene, giving it a yellow hue
  • When cows don’t get the beta-carotene-rich grass and flower diet, they’re often given a grain diet, which is unhealthy for the cows and for people who eat their butter and drink their milk
  • Artisanal butter and raw milk are growing in popularity, with natural yellow hues, and commercial dairies have already begun adding yellow coloring with annatto, from a tropical tree
  • Government agencies such as the USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have finally acknowledged that butter is better after all, but many doctors need to get the memo

By Dr. Mercola

In your musings about odd things, it may have occurred to you to wonder, if butter is basically made from the skimmings of milk, and milk is white, why is butter yellow?

When you think about butter making, it's a multi-step process, starting with cows. Cows, in the best and most natural way, eat grass and flowers which contain the yellow pigment beta-carotene, and store the pigments in their fat.

You get milk, cream, butter and other dairy foods from cows, and all (optimally) contain the fat with the beta-carotene, as well as the yellow pigment, but in different amounts. Even whole milk is mostly water; it has a little more than 3 percent fat.

Cream usually contains between 30 percent and 40 percent fat, but at least 80 percent of the butter content is saturated fat. A New York Times article explained:

"The fat globules suspended in milk or cream are surrounded by a thin membrane that, in essence, ends up hiding the beta-carotene pigment. This structure reflects light in such a way that the milk looks white ... In the process, the membranes break apart and the fat globules cluster together."1

But that's the goal, explained Elaine Khosrova, former editor of the cheese-making publication Culture, and author of "Butter: A Rich History." That's how the beta-carotene is "exposed." Separated after it's churned, what's left is butterfat, which is intensely yellow.

'Real' Butter From Grass-Fed Cows Is 'Real' Yellow

If you've ever been in a position to churn the milk from a sheep, goat or water buffalo (and kudos if you have), you'll find the butter it makes is white. The reason is because those animals don't store beta-carotene like cows do. Their milk is instead converted to vitamin A, which has no color.

Fair-weather grazing of cows in spring and summer generally produces yellow butter, but what happens during off seasons when cows don't get the beta-carotene-rich grass and flower diet they'd normally eat in the pasture? Typically, those cows are fed grain, which doesn't have a lot of beta-carotene.

Cows aren't built to digest grains, which radically alter their gut bacteria and promote disease. Grain also has a detrimental effect on the nutritional composition of the meat and milk.

Raw milk from organic, grass-fed cows contains better nutrients, and as a bonus, poses a lower risk of contamination from growth hormones, antibiotics and pathogens.

Enterprising dairies sometimes freeze yellow butter so they can sell it year-round. But then there are industrialized dairies (concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs) where cows never see grass, flowers, pastures or even the light of day. Their butter isn't naturally yellow any time of year.

Unfortunately, it's something most consumers have gotten used to. But because artisanal foods such as grass-fed butter and raw milk are growing in popularity, with natural yellow hues, Khosrova said she believes it's only a matter of time before butters are artificially "yellowed."

"Chefs want that on the table, so I really wonder if companies will start sneaking in more color," she predicted. Well, it's happening already. As the Times article reported:

"Some commercial dairy producers do add color, usually annatto, which is also sometimes added to cheeses to give them a yellow-orange hue. Annatto is a derivative of seeds from the achiote tree, which is native to Central and South America and grows in tropical regions."2

Because imaginations and associations are so strong, seeing that yellow color in their butter actually makes people think butter that's yellow tastes better, whether it's beta-carotene-sourced or not.

Butter: Not the Killer It's Been Made Out to Be

It wasn't that long ago that the medical community started backpedaling on its stance regarding fat.

But after years of hearing that butter is an artery clogger that will destroy your heart, it's becoming clear that the plasticized pseudo-butter we know as margarine is the actual culprit, along with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and vegetable shortening. Science Daily reported:

"A research team led by scientists at the UNC [University of North Carolina] School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health has unearthed more evidence that casts doubt on the traditional 'heart healthy' practice of replacing butter and other saturated fats with corn oil and other vegetable oils high in linoleic acid."3

While people were avoiding butter like the plague and doing their best to cut fats of every kind out of their life, they didn't realize they were putting their health at risk.

The reason they got it wrong was because everywhere you turned, you heard that decreasing fat, with butter being one of the worst "offenders," was the only way to protect your heart and lose weight.

Margarine is the product created by the food industry that is not only made with hexane and other industrial chemicals, it's bleached, sometimes filled with soy protein isolates, sterols, mono- and di-glycerides and fake flavors that may cause cancer and innumerable other diseases. It long contained trans fats as well.

Newest Studies Confirm: Butter Is Better

Margarine was the go-to "spread" for toast and biscuits for about 40 years. Cookbooks from the 1960s through the '90s still touted it as superior for everything from baking chocolate chip cookies to frying eggs.

Anyone looking to lose weight did everything they could to avoid anything that said "fat" on it unless it was preceded by the word "zero."

It's finally turning around, but not before heart disease rates started climbing, because the medical industry's answer to the "dangers" of butter was basically plastic. The fact is, the war on fat was based on faulty science.

What studies now say is that there was not a connection between saturated fat and heart disease. The basis for the entire premise omitted a large body of evidence that, if examined properly, would have changed everything from the food pyramid to doctors' recommendations to their patients.

The Framingham Heart study showed unequivocally that just about the minute people started replacing their butter with margarine, the rate of heart disease and an array of interrelated disorders skyrocketed.

In a Nutrition Journal article titled "Saturated fat and cardiovascular disease: The discrepancy between the scientific literature and dietary advice," Netherlands-based researchers concluded that, in relation to cardiovascular disease (CVD):

"The dietary guidelines, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) in 2010, have been criticized for being based on an incomplete body of relevant science and for inaccurately representing or summarizing the science on saturated fat ...

All three reports included the effect of saturated fat on low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in the evidence linking saturated fat to cardiovascular disease, but the effect on high-density lipoprotein cholesterol was systematically ignored.

Both U.S. reports failed to correctly describe the results from the prospective studies. The results and conclusions about saturated fat intake in relation to CVD, from leading advisory committees, do not reflect the available scientific literature."4

Bottom Line: Saturated Fats Lower Cardiovascular Disease

Saturated fats actually raise your beneficial HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and change the LDL (low-density lipoprotein) from small and dense, which is very bad, to large LDL, making it benign, one journal study reported.5

Another review noted that medium-chain fatty acids, including those in butter, may help prevent obesity.6 Further, medium-chain fats bring greater satiety, and quicker, while the long-chain variety does just the opposite, according to tests on both animals and humans.7

One of the most prominent studies, which examined the effects of butter and margarine on cardiovascular disease, revealed that margarine increases your heart attack risk, while butter lowers it.8

And here's the kicker: Eating full-fat grass-fed butter might even lower your heart attack risk by as much as 69 percent, perhaps in part because of its vitamin K content.9

Other Positives in Regard to Butter Consumption

Butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid, is created by bacteria in your colon when it comes in contact with dietary fiber, which may be one of the reasons why fiber is so beneficial. The good news about butyrate is that it's an ingredient in butter, making up around 4 percent.

Authority Nutrition passed along a report by the American Diabetes Association indicating that butyrate may help prevent weight gain, increase fat burn and improve mitochondrial function.10 It's also helpful for your digestive system11 and is a powerful anti-inflammatory.12

Another fatty acid called conjugated linolenic acid (CLA) is another benefit of butter consumption. As millions of people all over the world can affirm, butter has been a staple for thousands of years, with scant evidence of adverse health effects. Butter is not only good for you while margarine is seriously health-damaging, but it also tastes better! A USDA article acknowledged the incongruity without being too hard on itself:

"In the second half of the 1970s, margarine availability began trending downward, with a steeper decline starting in 1994. By 2005, margarine consumption had fallen below butter consumption, despite butter's higher price ($3.28 per pound) compared with margarine (89 [cents] per pound).

Margarine availability continued falling to 3.5 pounds per person in 2010. In 2013, per capita availability of butter was 5.5 pounds. Butter may owe part of its increase in consumption to concerns about trans fats in margarine and more recent suggestions that saturated fat is not as unhealthy as once thought."13

Which Milk Is Better — Pasteurized or Raw?

Like real butter, grass-fed organic milk tends to be yellowish as well, not pure white. Cows raised on dried grass or hay rather than fresh, green grass produce a whiter product, which is an indication that the carotenoid and antioxidant content is largely diminished.

Generally speaking, the less dairy products such as butter, milk, yogurt and cheese are "messed with," the better they are for you. Those who believe that pasteurized milk is more advantageous to consume than raw milk from healthy, grass-fed cows don't understand that the assertion that raw milk is dangerous to drink comes straight from the conventional dairy industry. The fact is, pasteurization destroys many valuable nutrients and enzymes in the milk. 

Further, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain that raw milk can carry harmful bacteria, but fail to disclose that those bacteria may be most likely to result from the way industrial dairies raise diseased cattle in CAFOs, which often produce contaminated milk that must be pasteurized in order to be safe to drink.

One thing you may already be aware of is that you can make your own butter at home, and it's remarkably easy. The benefits to your health may open you to further steps to optimal health.

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Sources and References

  • 1, 2 The New York Times Well 2016
  • 3 Science Daily April 12, 2016
  • 4 Nutrition Journal February 2012
  • 5 International Journal of Cardiology June 30, 2000
  • 6 J Am Coll Nutr. 2008 October;27(5):547-552
  • 7 J Nutr. March 1, 2002
  • 8 Epidemiology. 1997 March;8(2):144-9
  • 9 European Journal of Clinical Nutrition April 7, 2010
  • 10 Diabetes. 2009 July:58(7);1509-1517
  • 11 Gastroenterology 1992 July;103(1):51-6
  • 12 FASEB J. 200 December;14(15):2380-2
  • 13 USDA July 5, 2016
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