Breakfast of Champions - Butter Coffee?

Posted in Controversy

Breakfast of Champions - Butter Coffee?

When the Producer of Saskatoon Global Morning News asked me to speak on the latest trend, butter coffee, I actually thought he was confused, that he must have meant something else. After a quick google search, I found a number of links describing this peculiar morning trend. My first question, BUT WHY?

I actually spent most of my day researching the man behind this trend, Dave Asprey, and some of the claims being made regarding butter coffee. Dave Asprey is the founder of The Bulletproof Executive, which is essentially a paleo-like diet plan and a way of living. He is also the man behind butter coffee that he calls ‘Bulletproof coffee’.

What is it?

It's called breakfast, and it includes 2 cups of brewed coffee (preferably from Asprey's "non-toxic" coffee beans), 2 tablespoons of grass-fed butter, and 1 tablespoon of medium-chain triglyceride oil, blended together until frothy.

Is it Good?

Advocates love it! And of course I had to try it. I found it very creamy and frothy, but really not too heavy. Topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon, it's actually quite good! But I must say, that it really didn't tie me over any longer than my usual whole oats, flaxseed, hemp seed, berries, and plain yogurt.

Okay, BUT WHY?

There are a number of "scientific" claims being made by butter coffee advocates that, naturally, I was curious about. Let's dig in, shall we?

Claim #1 - Only grass-fed butter has the right fats to regulate cholesterol, not add to it. It contains higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids.

This claim is true… on paper. The saturated fatty acids considered to be more harmful to blood cholesterol levels (myristic and palmitic) are shown to be higher in grain-fed beef than grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef contains higher levels of stearic acid, the only saturated fatty acid with a neutral impact on blood cholesterol. Thus, grass-fed beef tends to produce a more favourable saturated fatty acid composition than grain fed beef. Also, the grass-fed beef consistently shows a higher concentration of omega 3 fatty acids creating a more favourable omega 6 to 3 ratio.

Yet, there is no research showing effects of grass-fed butter versus grain-fed butter on LDL cholesterol in humans. So, on paper grass fed butter should not raise LDL cholesterol to the same extent as grain fed butter, but we really don't know this for sure. It will be up to you to track your own annual blood work until further research is presented.

Claim #2 - Grass-fed butter provides healthy fats for your brain and body to create cell walls and hormones.

Yup, fat plays an important role in production of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat is a key element in nerve and brain cells, and good quality fats help to keep our hair and skin glowing. We also have easy access to polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats from nuts, seeds, avocado, and vegetable oils (olive, safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, etc.). The essential omega 3 fats can certainly be enhanced with grass-fed butter, but also with a regular dose of camelina oil, walnuts, chia seeds, hemps seeds, and fatty fish.

While butter is certainly NICE to have in our diets, we don't NEED butter in order to attain these healthy fats.

Claim #3 - Butter contains butyrate, which is linked to reducing inflammation in the body and increasing energy levels.

True statement. Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid. Cows milk fat contains butyric acid. Butyrate produces energy and cell production, and has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. You should also know that butyrate is produced by soluble, prebiotic fibres that ferment in the colon. Such fibre includes: asparagus, garlic, onion, wheat, oats, and soybeans. Although butter may contain butyrate, one can reap the benefits of this short chain fatty acid by incorporating prebiotic fibres in the diet. Butter is not the only source.

Claim #4 – The conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) found in grass-fed butter has been shown to reduce body fat mass in overweight individuals.

This statement is a stretch from the truth. There is no evidence suggesting that CLA in grass-fed butter will cause weight reduction in humans. The study being quoted suggests that CLA reduced body fat by 1.2% in overweight volunteers consuming more than 3.4 grams of CLA capsules every day for 12 weeks. A resource from Dairy Farmers of Canada tells us there are 0.0045 grams of CLA per gram of butter. There are roughly 28 grams in 2 tablespoons of butter, which means there is only 0.126 grams of CLA in 2 tablespoons of butter - no where near the 3.4 grams shown beneficial in the study described above.

To extrapolate this information and suggest that grass-fed butter will lead to weight loss because of its CLA content is simply an irresponsible use of the research. Individuals anecdotally report losing weight after a switch to butter coffee, but we don't know if there are other changes being made to diet and lifestyle contributing to this weight loss.

Claim #5 - The medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) in Bulltetproof coffee will increase cognitive function.

Partly true. MCTs unusual structure allows the body to digest them easily. MCTs are absorbed intact (not broken down), directly into the bloodstream and taken to the liver. From here they are broken down into ketone bodies to be used as quick energy similar to carbohydrates.

However, there's a bigger picture here to understand. Ketone bodies can be used for brain energy production, but only when carbohydrates become so scarce that energy must be obtained from breaking down fatty acids. The brain and nerve cells, which have a preference for glucose as fuel, will use ketone bodies for fuel, but not efficiently and not immediately. The shift from glucose to ketones as fuel for the brain requires avoidance of all carbohydrates and a metabolic state that compares to starvation, similar to a carbohydrate intake of less than 60 grams per day (limiting an individual to ~3 servings of carbohydrates daily from either yogurt, milk, grains, fruit, and starchy vegetables... or ~30 gummy bears). This adaptation occurs as early as 3 days, at which time ketone bodies provide about 25% of brain energy requirements. Thus, in order for the brain to benefit from ketones, one must be consuming a very low carbohydrate diet for more than 3 days. Over time, the brain will become more efficient at using ketones for energy, but certainly not after an overnight fast, and still not efficiently as carbohydrates. Carbohydrate for brain and muscle fuel is truly the body's most efficient and most preferred energy source.

Claim #6 – 2 tablespoons of butter is all you need to replace a breakfast meal, making it a quick alternative. Bulletproof coffee provides essential fats and calories.

I have no doubt this frothy, fatty, heavy cup of joe is sure to satisfy the appetite well into the morning at 38 grams of fat and 350 calories. It won't raise blood sugars, nor cause a crash the way sugar-laden cereals do. It might be a great way to start the day, particularly for those who avoid breakfast altogether. I encourage clients to have something within an hour of waking, and preferably not the highly processed, quickly digested, over-fortified bowl of non-food substances we call breakfast cereal. Butter coffee just might be the answer for many non-breakfast eaters or at least a worth-while switch from those sugary, refined options such as toast and Nutella, Fruit Loops, flavoured instant oats, waffles, Pop Tarts… I think you get the point.

On the other hand, I'm not entirely convinced that "2 tablespoons of butter is all you need to replace a breakfast meal". Breakfast can be a very nutrient-dense meal that helps optimize intakes of protein and fibre, and micronutrients such as B12, calcium, vitamin C, and iron - also essential for energy, muscle health, reducing inflammation, and fighting disease. Butter coffee offers only fat. This may not be an issue for someone who takes interest in what they eat and ensures a variety of whole, unprocessed foods throughout the rest of their day. A carefully planned diet can ensure these nutrients are made up later in the day.

Still One Question Remains

A final point I would like to raise is that grass-fed butter sounds amazing, but where the heck do we acquire this in Canada? As a local food advocate, I sourced a few of the grass-fed cattle farms near Saskatoon. Yes, they certainly sell grass-fed meat, but no grass fed butter for sale. Sangsters carries organic butter, but not grass-fed. Rumour has it that Dad's Organic Market carries a brand of butter from cows raised on grass in the sping/summer. Grass-fed butter can be purchased from the USA through Amazon if you're so inclined to go to such lengths.

So, after all that research into the nutritional and health benefits of grass-fed butter for Bulletproof coffee, the point in question - is grain-fed butter good enough?

The Bottom Line

I suppose my take home message is this:

1) Recognize your current state of health. If you already struggle with elevated LDL cholesterol levels, butter coffee is not be the best ritual to jump into without first addressing other potential issues within your diet and lifestyle.

2) Think about the rest of your daily food intake. How much of your diet is made up of processed meat, refined carbohydrates, or deep fried foods? Is the rest of your diet promoting or preventing inflammation, chronic disease, and optimal nutrient intakes? Starting the day with a butter coffee may have little value to your overall health if the diet is already suboptimal.

3) If you follow a carefully planned diet filled with unprocessed whole foods, yet struggle with breakfast this may be your answer! And to ensure your cholesterol levels remain in check, make the change and get your blood work done annually. It creates an opportunity to experiment, take control of your own situation, and be accountable for it. BUT if your bowl of whole oats or buckwheat grits topped with seeds and berries works for you, this is NOT a nutritionally equivalent switch to make.

Butter coffee, it might just be the breakfast of champions. But is it for you?


Submitted by: Brooke Bulloch, RD