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Are Trans Fatty Acids in Butter Good For You?

Are Trans Fatty Acids in Butter Good or Bad?

Trans fats have been getting a lot of bad publicity recently. They are commonly found in fried and baked goods but do you know that some trans fats are good for you?.

One of the most common natural trans fats are found in butter. It contains lower traces of trans fatty acids, and it is different from artificial trans fat, which is created by adding hydrogen to edible oils. The trans fats in butter is not the same as manufactured trans fat and does not increase your risk of heart disease.

Butter is often accused of being bad for your cardiovascular health. However, what should be taken into consideration is the difference between natural and manufactured trans fat.

In this post, we will cover:

  • Trans fatty acids
  • Sources of trans fatty acids
  • How butter is made
  • Comparing trans fatty acids in butter and hydrogenated vegetable oils

What are Trans Fatty Acids?

Trans fatty acids are derived from trans fats, they exist either in natural or artificial form.

Natural trans fatty acids are made by ruminants like cow, sheep, and goats. They are formed when the cis isomers of unsaturated fatty acids are converted to trans isomers through biohydrogenation, this process is carried out when bacteria flora in rumen hydrogenates unsaturated cis isomeric fatty acids to produce trans fatty acids.

Artificial trans fatty acids are created by partial hydrogenation of edible oils. Catalyst are added in the presence of hydrogen to carry out this process to change cis trans fatty acids to the trans isomer, chemical additives and flavors are used to solidify hydrogenated vegetable oils producing margarine.

Sources of Trans Fatty Acids

Humans do not produce trans fatty acids, all comes from the diet. Two sources of trans fatty acids are found in products derived from ruminants, such as milk and meat, and in foods that contain artificially manufactured hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Both are derived from hydrogenation of unsaturated fats but in the case of ruminants, trans fatty acids (rTFA), the bacteria in the ruminant animal’s gut hydrogenate the fatty acids.

The amount of TFA and the kind of trans fatty acids produced in milk and meat are determined by what the animal eats, cows that graze produce more TFA than those that are grain fed.

The predominant isomer of TFA found in milk is vaccenic acid. It makes up 55% of total trans18:1 isomers in milk fat from grazing cows, compared with 33% in milk from cows fed a grain diet.

In most western countries, trace amounts of TFAs ingested is from dairy sources and studies to date have shown that trans fatty acids made by ruminants are not harmful.

Tans fatty acids are found in:

  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Margarine
  • Pastries
  • Popcorn
  • Hydrogenated edible oils

How Butter Is Made

Milk fat, which is 98% triglycerides is a good source of energy and nutrients, a vital food ingredient that provides desirable textural and flavor characteristics. The fatty acid composition of milk fat typically comprises 70% saturated fatty acids, 25% MUFAs and 5% PUFAs.

Butter is essentially milk fat. It is usually made from sweet cream and is salted. Saltless butters are also available. Butter can be made from acidulated soured cream, and it also contains fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E.

At home, butter making process is simple, first, the cream is allowed to stand and sour naturally. The cream is then skimmed from the top of the milk and poured into a wooden tub, it then further undergoes churning to produce butter. The natural souring process is, however, a very sensitive one and infection by foreign micro-organisms often spoils the result.

Today, modern technology has made things easier for us, industries can produce butter using two completely different methods. These are the churning method and the emulsification method.

In the churning method, crystallization of the fat takes place in cream, followed by a phase inversion in which the oil-in-water emulsion of the cream is turned into a water-in-oil emulsion. The fat content is then concentrated by draining off the buttermilk and is finally plasticized by mechanical work.

In the emulsification method, the first three sub-processes in the churning method are carried out in reverse order. First, the fat emulsion is concentrated to a fat content corresponding to the composition of the final product, then a phase inversion is carried out followed by crystallization, and finally a coherent fat mass is formed and plasticized.

Comparison Between Trans Fatty Acids in Butter and Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils

Although most natural sources of unsaturated fats are of the cis configuration, trans fatty acids do occur in foods. Unsaturated fats are hydrogenated to produce solid fats.

However, this process can move double bonds from their naturally occurring positions and convert configurations from cis to trans.

We already know that butter is made from milk fat, trans fatty acids in butter forms when bacteria performs biohydrogenation of fatty acids, modifying them to convert cis unsaturated fatty acids with lower number of unsaturation to trans fatty acids.

The biohydrogenation occurs in various steps of reduction and numerous bacteria are involved, which the active specie may depend of fatty acid unsaturation degree, but the butyrivibrio proteoclasticus bacteria can convert polyunsaturated fatty acids directly to saturated fatty acids.

In the case of producing artificial trans fatty acids, partial hydrogen is added to vegetable oils to solidify, this industrial process is used widely in the food industry, for reasons including it’s low cost compared with other fats, and ability to prolong the shelf-life of products and impart desirable characteristics to the food.

What Does Research Say About Trans Fatty Acids

When liquid oils are partially hydrogenated to form solid margarines and shortenings, trans isomers of fatty acids are formed. In most countries the trans fatty acids constitute about 4% to 7% of dietary fat intake.

A high intake of trans fatty acids is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Like saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids increase the concentration of serum low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.

Unlike saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids decrease serum HDL cholesterol. This might be harmful because there is increasing evidence that HDL cholesterol is inversely related to coronary heart disease.

A health study revealed that, TFAs derived from vegetable oils increase the risk of coronary heart disease, whereas the naturally occurring TFAs in milk fat of animals like ruminants do not cause any problems, and may reduce coronary heart disease risk. The highest intake of vegetable TFAs led to a 78% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease, while the highest intake of animal TFAs had a 41% reduction in the risk.


Naturally occuring trans fatty acids in butter are healthy, they are made by ruminants, and there is low risks of cardiovascular diseases, compared to solidified vegetable oils that has high amounts of trans fatty acids may lead to coronary heart disease.

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