The short answer is yes, butter is a dairy product.
While this may seem obvious to some, there are several reasons for the confusion.
The main reason is probably because butter is often allowed on dairy-free diets.
It’s also well tolerated by people who are intolerant to lactose, the main carbohydrate in milk.
What is Butter and How is it Made?
Butter is a solid, high-fat food that is usually made from cow’s milk. It can also be produced from the milk of goats, sheep or buffalo.
It’s created by churning or shaking cream until it separates into solid and liquid parts called butterfat and buttermilk, respectively. The butterfat is what becomes butter.
Cream is used because it’s higher in fat than milk, so it produces more butter.
Just one tablespoon (14 grams) contains about 100 calories and 11 grams of fat, 7 of which are saturated fat.
In the small amounts usually consumed, butter does not provide many vitamins and minerals. However, one tablespoon contains 7% of the RDI for vitamin A (1).
Bottom Line: Butter is made from cream and is high in fat, containing only trace amounts of protein and carbs.
Is Butter a Dairy Product?
Anything made from the milk of mammals is considered to be dairy.
Since butter is made from milk, it’s a dairy product.
Despite this, it is often allowed on dairy-free diets. While this might seem contradictory, there are several explanations.
People who can’t tolerate dairy usually have problems with either the proteins or carbohydrates in milk.
Those with a milk allergy have an allergic reaction to the proteins found in milk, while those who are lactose intolerant cannot digest lactose, the main carbohydrate in milk.
Additionally, some people who have irritable bowel syndrome may do better avoiding lactose (2).
However, unlike most dairy products, butter contains mostly fat and very little protein and carbs. Therefore, people who must follow a lactose-free diet or avoid dairy for other reasons are usually able to eat it without problems (1).
Nevertheless, this is not the case for people who have a milk allergy.
Even though butter contains almost no protein, even trace amounts can cause a reaction. This means it is not safe for people with a milk protein allergy.
Bottom Line: Butter is made from milk, making it a dairy product. However, it’s allowed on some dairy-free diets because it’s low in protein and carbs.
Butter is Very Low in Lactose
Butter contains only trace amounts of lactose, which makes it different from most other dairy products.
Lactose-intolerant people can consume up to 12 grams of lactose at a time without symptoms, and one tablespoon of butter contains nearly undetectable levels (3).
Even though you might use more than one tablespoon when cooking or baking, it would be impossible to use enough to reach the 12-gram lactose limit just by eating butter.
For example, one cup (227 grams) of butter contains only 0.1 grams of lactose (1).
For this reason, butter is well tolerated and fits in most lactose-free diets. Only those who are highly sensitive to lactose may experience symptoms.
Bottom Line: Butter is very low in lactose, and one cup contains only 0.1 grams. For this reason, it fits easily into most lactose-free diets.
Should You Eat Butter?
In the past, butter was thought to be extremely unhealthy because of its high fat content.
Nevertheless, this has caused many people to believe that butter is unhealthy and should be avoided.
While some people may need to limit their saturated fat intake, most people can consume moderate amounts of saturated fat without worries.
In fact, there’s evidence that dairy fat may benefit your health. This is largely due to its conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a naturally occurring trans fat.
Studies on CLA indicate that it may have health benefits, such as preventing the buildup of plaque in arteries, increasing bone mass, reducing the risk of cancer and regulating immune function and inflammation (7, 8, 9).
Nonetheless, more studies are needed to confirm these claims (10).
Keep in mind that since butter is high in fat, it’s also high in calories. It is therefore best to avoid eating it in large amounts.
Bottom Line: In the past, butter was thought to be unhealthy because of its saturated fat content. However, this is no longer a big concern. The CLA found in dairy fat may even provide some health benefits.
How to Reduce Lactose in Dairy
If you’re lactose intolerant and have symptoms when eating dairy, there are some things you can do to reduce the lactose content.
Clarified Butter or Ghee
It’s possible to reduce the lactose content of butter even further by using it to make either clarified butter or ghee.
Clarified butter is almost pure butterfat that’s created by melting butter until the fat separates from the water and other milk solids. The fat layer is then be removed.
Ghee, on the other hand, is made by heating butter until all of the water evaporates and then simmering it together with the milk solids.
Eating Dairy with Meals
Eating dairy products with foods that are high in protein, fat or fiber will slow the emptying of your stomach.
This causes less lactose to enter your intestine at a time. For this reason, full-fat dairy is probably better tolerated than low-fat dairy (3).
Slowly Increasing Lactose in Your Diet
Several studies show that slowly increasing the amount of lactose you consume over the course of two weeks can improve your tolerance to lactose.
Lactase Tablets or Drops
Most people who cannot tolerate lactose lack lactase, the enzyme needed to break down lactose. Taking lactase tablets with dairy or adding lactase drops to milk can help break down the lactose in foods (13).
Bottom Line: There are several things you can do to reduce lactose in dairy products or help you tolerate them better. This includes clarifying butter, eating dairy with meals and increasing your intake gradually.
Other Dairy Products That Are Low in Lactose
The following dairy products are low in lactose and are often tolerated on dairy-free diets:
- Yogurt: Yogurt contains roughly 5% less lactose than milk, but it’s often well tolerated because the bacteria in yogurt can digest the lactose (14).
- Kefir: Kefir contains very little lactose because the bacteria and yeast used in the fermentation process break it down (15).
- Lactose-free milk: Lactose-free milk has the enzyme lactase added, which breaks down most of its lactose.
- Some cheeses: Certain types of cheese contain little or no lactose. Mozzarella and Swiss cheese contain between 0–3%. Aged cheeses, such as Parmesan, Gouda or hard cheddar, contain between 0–2% (16).
Bottom Line: Several other dairy products are low in lactose. This includes yogurt, kefir, lactose-free milk and some types of cheese.
Take Home Message
Butter is a tasty, high-fat dairy product made from milk. However, it’s allowed on some dairy-free diets due to its very low lactose and protein content.
What’s more, the fats in butter might even have some health benefits.
Yet since it’s high in fat, butter is also high in calories. Therefore, feel free to enjoy it without guilt — but be sure not to overdo it.