Sarah Todd: Start spreading the news – butter isn’t the diet devil

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SOMETHING sits on our kitchen table. It leaves playdate parents gasping in horror. A bottle of gin? The carving knife? Some saucy underwear peeping provocatively from the washing pile?

No, what gets modern mummies making a hasty retreat, shielding their little darlings’ eyes, is the butter dish. Day and night (the fridge would be sacrilege), it sits on the well-worn pine table.

It wasn’t always like this. Low-fat spreads were smugly sought out. But when, one day about five years ago, I finally read the ingredient lists – additives, preservatives, colourings and lots of other things that seemed to have more in common with a school science experiment than a dairy product – the old grey matter started working overtime.

Could it be, heaven forbid, that the Husband was right? He had stubbornly kept his own personal supply of butter, vowing to follow in the eating habits of his grandmother. She was a butter-eating farmer’s daughter who lived – healthily – to the age of 102.

For the last 30 years, the medical profession has told us to avoid butter and full-fat milk. This week experts said this advice, aimed at reducing deaths from heart disease, lacked any solid trial evidence to back it up.

These eating guidelines, advocating the reduction of fat and an increase in carbohydrates, were the first of their kind to be introduced. Since then, there hardly seems to be a week goes by without some new dietary diktat.

But back to butter. The food industry leapt on the “full-fat is evil” message, coming up with low-fat spreads and encouraging families to turn their backs on other dairy products such as cheese, milk and cream.

Some scientists are now saying the advice, from 1983, characterising saturated fat as the “main dietary villain” might even – because of the way it encouraged us to eat more carbohydrates – have played its part in the obesity crisis.

Interestingly, Americans were given these new eating guidelines six years earlier. It wouldn’t be out of the way – would it? – to guess that our country’s ever-expanding waistbands are about six years behind those in the USA. Food for thought...

Whether or not butter is good or bad, this household will continue to spread it. For one thing, it’s a simple way of showing support for Britain’s beleaguered dairy industry and surely better that than financing the global food giants behind the boffins mixing up low-fat spreads in laboratories.

We live in a funny old world. Many modern families who wouldn’t dream of picking out anything but “low fat” spreads for their children’s pack-up sandwiches seem to think nothing of sending them off with a can of fizzy pop.

There is no doubt in this correspondent’s mind that it is sugar – not fat – which is the rotten core of 
many of our diet and health problems.
No scientific research to spout, just a 
gut feeling that the more natural and 
less-processed a food is, the healthier 
it must be.

Finding out which foods are friends or foe is a minefield. While we, as a nation, make up our minds, the mixed messages we are sending the next generation is beyond belief.

“Did you have the jacket potato at dinner time?” one of our offspring is asked.

“No, they’re awful – we’re not allowed any butter in them; they say it’s bad for you.”

There are some schoolchildren – at least in our neck of the woods – who don’t even get a bit of butter if there’s a piece of bread on offer. It has to be eaten dry.

How many foods are there in our lives that don’t have an ingredient list? Butter must be one of the few that, apart from if you buy salted, has nothing added.

Bamboozled by diet fads, this is the benchmark by which our family’s food decisions are now taken. The shorter the ingredient list, the better it has to be.

Whenever one of these diet-related revelations appears in the news, there is one piece of advice that never seems to be given. It’s simple and to the point. Moderation. Yes, just as Grandma would have said, a little bit of what you fancy does no harm.

Butter has been around since our ancestors first started domesticating animals. There’s just one caveat to all this buttering-up of the dairy industry. It sits uneasily to see dairy cows grazing on fields that are so pumped-up with nitrates that the pasture has more in common colour-wise with Kermit the frog. It’s the old story of the bottom line and the pressure for increased yields.

Though at least they’re outside, unlike some of these super dairies that have recently caused consternation on The Archers and where cows no longer get to graze and spend their lives indoors.

To quote an old 1970s advert, the next time you fry eggs give them a break – use real butter. And to quote yours truly, shock the neighbours – get a butter dish.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.