"I was not expecting to find the metaphysical life of butter."
You almost certainly love butter.
But even if you don't, you are, biologically speaking, hardwired to love the rich, pale yellow stuff that emerges from the churning of cream. That's not really up for debate.
Anyways, you probably don't love butter as much as Elaine Khosrova, a writer and former pastry chef who embarked on a years-long to France, Ireland, India, Bhutan, and Canada in a quest to better understand butter. The end result is Butter: A Rich History, a deep dive into butter that journeys through millennia of cultural research and spreads across three continents.
Khosrova's book is as much about the cutting edge of health research as it is about ancient rituals, so we caught up with her to better understand the many myths (modern and ancient) surrounding the famous fat.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Elaine. So, how long have humans been eating butter for?
Elaine Khosrova: At least 10,000 years. We can't know precisely, but it definitely parallels the domestication of animals very early on. It probably wasn't even cows' butter that humans started making butter with, but goat or sheep or even yak butter.
Why do you think that butter remains popular across so many cultures?
Because it's so delicious. It's just an incredible food when you think about its applications. Depending on its temperature, it has a lot of different uses. If you melt it, you can make sauces and things like that. At a soft room temperature, you can cream it to make cookies and cakes and frostings. And if it's hard, you can layer it to make pastries like pies, croissants, or puff pastries. From a practical point of view, it has so many applications.
What do you think the biological underpinnings of that are?
As humans, we're wired to love fat because it gives us such sustenance. It's very satisfying. It gives us a lot of energy. Fat carries a lot of flavor and that taste doesn't just disappear out of your mouth right away. We're wired to love butter.
So our bodies are designed to perceive butter as super tasty, but is it good for you?
I think it is, but I really do distinguish between grass-fed butter and industrial butter that relies on feedlot milk and cream, which is definitely more diminished when it comes to micronutrients. For many thousands of years, people have been eating grass-fed butter, and we're trying to bring it back. It's only during the last hundred years that we haven't been eating it, because of the industrialization of dairy. We've really changed the cow a lot and how it's eating.
How much butter did people eat back in the day?
In the early 1900s, in North American, people were eating, on average, 17 pounds of butter each per year. In Europe it was probably even more, but there was very little heart disease. By the end of the century, butter consumption dropped because of all the anti-fat campaigns that we were subjected to. So it went to 17 pounds to about four-and-a-half pounds of butter per year.
But heart disease started becoming a real problem.
Heart disease exploded—it was off the charts by the end of the century.
Life expectancy was a lot lower a century ago; is it possible that people didn't live long enough to get heart disease?
That's a really complicated issue. I think it has a lot more to do with processed food and margarine and the introduction of trans fats. It's bad stuff. We've gotten really good at improving the mechanics of the heart with stents and bypass, but our diets are still really unhealthy because they rely on processed foods and there is so much sugar in our diets.
So how do you navigate these strange waters as a consumer?
I would say to eat more like our ancestors do, if you even can at this point.
Can you even get grass-fed butter in North America?
Sure, you can. It's sometimes called pasture butter, depending on the brand. But there are nice, affordable options out there, especially regionally.
How did fat and butter become the enemy?
It's hard to capsulize in a brief interview, but I will say that there were scientists who really strongly believed that the fat you eat ends up as fat in your body. We know that that's not really how things work, but it made so much sense intuitively that politicians grabbed onto it. And then it became diet policy, and once it became policy, it just took off.
Between the food companies who wanted to make new low-fat products for us and promote those to the nutrition and medical community who were desperately seeking a cure for heart disease, it was a perfect theory. But now we know it's so much more complex than that and sugar presents a lot of problems for your heart and can actually increase your cholesterol level.
What about reports that the sugar industry paid academics to undertake favorable research?
That was in the days when you didn't have to disclose who was supporting your research. Scientists were being discredited for writing about how bad sugar was, and the vegetable oil industry was also very powerful in getting people to jump on the anti-animal-fat bandwagon.
When you start looking at the politics of food in our country, it's very frightening.
What is frightening about that?
The forces behind the scenes. You think you're getting solid scientific evidence—unbiased—but there are biases all over the place and it takes a lot of research.
Does butter affect everyone the same way?
Trying to find a one-size-fits-all diet plan is kind of crazy. I can eat starch forever and ever and not gain weight, but my best friend has to stay away from it. It's just one example, but we really don't have the same constitutions.
What's really cool about your book is the cross-cultural and travel angles used to explore butter in different regions and climates. What do you think the big misconceptions about butter are for North Americans?
It's definitely that saturated fat is bad for you. I fight against that constantly. It's a vast category. Coconut oil is very saturated, which is why it becomes solid at room temperature, and yet everyone extolls it as a health food. And it is healthy.
You travelled all over the place studying butter. What was the biggest surprise?
I was most astonished by the fact that butter was used as a sacred tool in many cultures around the world. The Vedic Aryans who preceded the Hindus in India worshipped the fire god Agni, and one of the rituals was throwing butter into a fire, which made it crackle and dance, all the while the read these verses and praises of butter. In ancient Ireland, they would give butter as an offering to the fairies because they were thought to be mischievous and harbingers of bad luck.
So butter actually has spiritual importance
Also, in Tibet butter—where they constantly drink butter tea—carving remains central to Tibetan Buddhist worship. They take yak butter, color it, and create these exquisite sculptures of their deities that they would place on altars before prayer. I was not expecting to find the metaphysical life of butter.
I'm glad you did.
So am I. Thanks.
Thanks for talking with us.