Butter is, in the words of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “coagulated sunlight.”  

For the first half of my life, I was deprived of that sunlight, having had the misfortune of being born in the era when butter, eggs, and cream were demonized. They clogged arteries!  Brought on heart attacks!  Made you fat! And so in my enlightened parents’ household, butter was out and margarine was in.

Thank goodness that in the last few years, the science has come full circle, re-affirming my grandparents’ and previous generations’ knowledge of the goodness of butter and other animal products.

But not all milk, butter, and eggs are created equal. The best, health-wise and taste-wise, come from pastured animals eating the diet nature intended. For cattle, this means grass, clover, alfalfa, and other forages.  Today, the “western” diet–for humans and for livestock–is heavily skewed toward omega-6 fatty acids, largely from soybean oil. In fact, soybean oil is estimated to comprise an astonishing 20% of the total calories in the American diet. 

An overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids is a problem because, once in the body, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids follow parallel pathways, continually competing with each other for chemical conversion to various structures and molecules.  It’s like the two kinds of fatty acids are playing musical chairs, and if you have an over-abundance of omega-6s, the health-promoting omega-are always left standing alone, and we lose out.

One of the best studies showing the higher overall nutrition, and higher omega-3 levels in organic products was a large meta-analysis in which researchers analyzed over 250 independent studies comparing organic and non-organic meat and milk products. After all the numbers were crunched, one of the most significant findings published in the study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition was that organic milk and meat had omega-3 fatty-acid levels 50% higher than their conventional milk and meat counterparts. This clear finding had a simple explanation to go along with it: the organic animals were on pasture more than conventional animals. There are, of course, many other “take-home messages” from the meta-analyses (see interview with Charles Benbrook for details ), but here are three of the most important.

It’s all about the grass. “The preferable omega-3 content is all about pasture,” according to registered dietician and Food Sleuth Radio host Melinda Hemmelgarn. “Cows were meant to eat grass!” A host of studies have shown that pasture leads to better omega-3 and other nutrient profiles. If getting these higher levels is important to you, seek out 100% pastured meat and dairy products.

You have to eat the fat.  Dr. Jacqueline Jacob of the University of Kentucky reminds us that “omega-3s are fatty acids,” and this means that “excess omega-3s in the diet of cows are put in the fat of meat or the fat in milk.” The same is true with the diet of hens, whose excess omega-3 goes into the fat of the egg yolk. While omega-3 levels in pasture-fed animals tend to be higher, meat from those animals tends to be leaner, with less fat content than grain-fed animals. If you’re eating a boneless, skinless chicken breast from a pastured chicken, that’s not a significant source of omega-3 simply because there’s not enough fat there to make a difference. If you want to reap the benefits from the higher omega-3s in pasture-fed animals, you need to eat the skin, fat, and dark meat of chickens, the fattier cuts of beef, and full-fat dairy products. So slather that butter on your toast!

Certified Organic animals generally eat more grass.   Although different organic operations have different practices, you can be assured that certified organic milk or meat from ruminants will have higher omega-3s than their conventional counterparts because there is a minimum requirement that certified organic animals have 120 days on pasture.

To summarize: When it comes to higher nutrition in meat and dairy products, “It’s the pasture, stupid!” Higher nutrition in meat, milk, and eggs comes from animals eating high omega-3 plants, not high-omega-6 grains. So go ahead, get out butter and eggs from pasture-raised animals, and make your favorite buttery cookies or cakes, and creamy soups.

Because fat carries flavor, just a little butter or cream makes savory dishes much more pleasing to the palette, and adds an inimitable richness to desserts. But butter’s transformative power goes even deeper. Perhaps it’s because butter is the result of a  transmutation–white liquid milk becomes a golden, creamy delight–coagulated sunlight!