Grass-Fed Butter vs. Regular Butter: What’s the Difference?
After years in the shadows, butter is back — and in a big way. In fact, butter consumption in the United States has been rising steadily since 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Recently, that rise may be thanks in part to the rise in high-fat diets like the ketogenic diet and food trends like Bulletproof coffee (aka coffee with butter in it) and butter boards (the next charcuterie board being popularized on TikTok).
But these days, some people won’t eat just any kind of butter — they want grass-fed butter, a variety that promises more health benefits and better taste than the traditional type.
Here’s what you need to know before trying this health food trend.
How Grass-Fed and Regular Butter Differ
The primary difference between grass-fed and regular butter is whether the cows used to produce the butter were allowed to graze on grass or were fed a diet of grains, says Rye, New York–based Malina Linkas Malkani, RD, founder and CEO of Malina Malkani Nutrition. This disparity in the cows’ diets results in a few key nutritional differences between the final butters made, as well as differences in the butters’ flavor and appearance.
Grass-fed butter usually looks and tastes more appealing than regular butter. Indeed, a past study reveals that grass-fed butter received significantly higher consumer ratings than grain-fed butter for a variety of characteristics, including appearance, flavor, and color.
“While the flavor of grass-fed butter will change depending on the location and time of year that the cows grazed, the taste is generally richer and more intensely butter-flavored than regular butter,” Malkani says.
Compared with regular butter, grass-fed butter may also get better ratings for its nutritional profile.
A potential benefit of grass-fed butter is it contains more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than regular butter, notes past research.
Another study notes that grass-fed butter contains less saturated fat and more polyunsaturated fat than regular butter. These characteristics are generally a boon to heart health, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Grass-fed butter also has greater amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a group of fatty acids that may help lower your risk of heart disease, says Malkani. Some people tout CLAs as also being beneficial for fat loss, but the scientific evidence for that claim is weak, says Sonya Angelone, RDN, a nutrition consultant in San Francisco. What’s more, you’d have to consume 3,000 to 6,000 milligrams (mg) of CLAs per day to see benefits; 1 tablespoon (tbsp) of grass-fed butter has only about 300 mg, she says.
Still, grass-fed butter is butter — meaning it contains more saturated fat than plant-based oils. To maximize the heart benefits of your food, try olive oil, recommends Mayo Clinic. More on how these types of fat compare below.
What About Margarine?
Margarine is in a whole other category. As a butter alternative, margarine is made from vegetable oils. But given the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) ban on artificially added trans fats, which margarine used to contain, it is controversial.
The key to choosing a healthier margarine is opting for soft varieties, according to the AHA. In fact, the AHA recommends this variety of margarine (which comes in a tub or in liquid form) as a butter alternative to reduce intake of saturated fat, which can harm heart health when eaten in excess.
The AHA suggests limiting total daily intake of saturated fat to 5 to 6 percent of total calories per day, which is about 13 g for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet. Saturated fats happen naturally in many foods, with the majority coming from animal sources like fatty beef, poultry skin, butter, cheese, lard, cream, and other dairy products made from whole or 2 percent milk, as well as many baked goods and fried foods, according to the AHA.
What Is Clarified Butter?
You may have also heard of clarified butter, or ghee. This type of butter — considered by followers of ayurvedic medicine to be the healthiest source of edible fat — is made by heating butter or cream to 212 degrees F to boil away the water content and filter out the milk solids, according to a past study. This process leaves nothing but the butter fat behind.
Whether clarified butter is actually the healthiest source of edible fat remains to be seen: Clarified butter is high in saturated fat, which suggests that it may increase your risk of heart disease, according to the same study. In fact, the nutritional profile of clarified butter is similar to other types of butter.
Nutrition Facts of Each Type of Butter and Margarine
Here are the nutrition facts for 1 tbsp of each type, comparatively, according to the USDA and, for grass-fed butter, via StopandShop.com:
- Calories: 120
- Fat: 14g
- Saturated fat: 9g
- Calories: 100
- Fat: 11g
- Saturated fat: 4.5g
- Calories: 100
- Fat: 11g
- Saturated fat: 7g
- Calories: 110
- Fat: 12g
- Saturated Fat: 7g
How Healthier Fats, Such as Olive Oil, Compare With Butters
For the sake of comparison, here’s how extra-virgin olive oil stacks up:
- Calories: 107
- Fat: 12g
- Saturated fat: 2.2g
Extra-virgin olive oil also contains 10 g of monounsaturated fat and 2 g of polyunsaturated fat per 1 tbsp serving. The AHA notes these fats are associated with improved heart health.
What to Know When Using Grass-Fed Butter
As strange as it may sound, one popular way of incorporating grass-fed butter into a diet is to drink it. People following a keto meal plan, for example, often add grass-fed butter to their coffee along with coconut oil or medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil and use it as a breakfast replacement or for energy and focus in between meals. Some people say this butter coffee drink helps keep them fuller longer (thanks to the high fat content) and aids weight loss, although the evidence for all of these claims is lacking.
Plus, it doesn’t provide protein, fiber, and other important vitamins and minerals, which are key to a healthy breakfast. “If used as a breakfast replacement, it may cause you to miss out on the otherwise healthy benefits you’d get from a balanced breakfast,” Malkani says.
And remember — you’re better off limiting saturated fat overall. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults limit their total fat intake to no more than 25 to 35 percent of daily calories, and saturated fat in particular to no more than 10 percent. For reference, that’s 500 to 700 calories (about 56 to 78 g) of fat, and no more than 200 calories (about 22 g) of saturated fat when following a daily diet of 2,000 calories. (The AHA’s recommendation is even more stringent. It suggests limiting saturated fat intake to 5 to 6 percent of daily calories, or about 120 calories in a 2,000-calorie diet per day. That comes out to 13 g of saturated fat max daily.)
Your best move is to limit the amount of butter (grass-fed or regular) that you consume on a daily basis. And if you have heart disease, it may be best to avoid butter of any kind, Angelone says. “The American Heart Association still recommends that people limit their consumption of foods high in saturated fat, since saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol, and elevated LDL cholesterol is associated with heart disease,” she explains.
Bottom Line: If You Have to Eat Butter, Choose Grass-Fed
If you have or are at risk for heart disease, soft margarine is your best bet, per the AHA.
If not, and you don’t want to give up butter, consider switching from regular to grass-fed, and enjoy in moderation (1 tbsp daily). “Grass-fed butter has the nutritional edge in that it offers more heart-healthy nutrients than regular butter in a less-processed product than margarine,” Malkani says.
You can typically find grass-fed butter at the grocery store or natural foods market. Look for terms like “pasture” and “grass-fed” on the label. If you see “Irish butter” (Kerrygold is one popular brand), know that this often means “grass-fed,” but check the label to be sure.