A little butter isn't going to kill anyone, but it's not a health food, either, nutrition experts found in a big study released Wednesday.
Before you sigh and complain about science flip-flopping, the researchers want to point out that they took a new approach to answering the classic question about healthy food. They looked at actual foods that people ate, rather than the ingredients that make up those foods, like saturated fats.
Their upshot? There are better things to worry about than butter.
"I would say butter is neither good nor bad," said Laura Pimpin of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, who led the study.
"If you can replace it with the more healthful plant-based oils, do so."
Related: Go for the Olive Oil if You Can
So many studies look at saturated fat or unsaturated fat or omega-3 fatty acids or calcium. Pimpin's team set out to find studies that looked at whole foods that people actually eat and then calculated their risks for overall death, heart disease and diabetes.
"We did the most up-to-date review that we could," Pimpin told NBC News. "We only found nine studies looking at the effect of butter. That's a finding in itself."
But they did their best and found no clear evidence that butter does any harm or good by itself. People who ate the most butter were slightly more likely to die during the various study periods than were people who ate little or none, but the risk was very slight, the team reported in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.
"We found a very small protective effect of butter intake on type-2 diabetes — not enough to tell people to eat it, but enough to say this might not be of huge concern for policymakers to be concerned with," Pimpin said.
The team wrote: "Our findings suggest a major focus on eating more or less butter, by itself, may not be linked to large differences in mortality, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. In sum, our findings do not support a need for major emphasis in dietary guidelines on butter consumption."
What might be more useful to focus on is the stuff people eat butter with, Pimpin said.
"It may be the case that the bagel you spread your butter on or the bread you spread it on may be more of a concern than the butter itself," she said.
"It's common sense. We do know that there are other foods that are healthful. If you can switch to cooking with olive oil, that could be beneficial," she said.