The Tyranny of Butter

butterI recently read an article in the Washington Post with the title “The Tyranny of Olive Oil”, the title was a bit misleading in the sense that the author actually had good things to say about olive oil but appeared to be referring to the fact that somehow olive oil has gained popularity due to its health benefits over the years and has scared consumers away from butter.

To be honest, I miss the butter that was once served at restaurants with bread, now most of time you see olive oil served on the table, which by the way, is something that we do not do in Greece or in the Mediterranean generally. I recently noticed a group of American tourists in a Brussels bar/restaurant returning the butter that was served to them with the bread and asking for olive oil instead. No no no. There is a time and place to have butter, and asking for olive oil in a Belgium beer bar is just plain wrong, especially as Belgium is not known for its olive oil. Olive oil is all about a lifestyle, not something you dip your bread in before a meal.

Now the fact of the matter is that saturated fat, is associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease. A new study out of Harvard showed that replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fats (olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (fatty fish) can reduce your risk by 15% and 25%. So, yes there is a risk in consuming large amounts of saturated fat (such as butter) which has also been associated with high cholesterol.

However, to me as a person who grew up consuming olive oil since I was a baby, the attitude seems to be more of following a trend than a scientifically sound diet. Well, olive oil is not a trend. I often see articles listing olive oil alongside coconut oil and other fashionable ingredients. And now we have this competition with the butter…

But there is no competition. In the traditional Mediterranean diet and by this I am referring to the traditional Greek diet, olive oil was and is the main source of fat in cooking and baking. We’re talking about years ago, way before olive oil became trendy. In fact, even as recent as 30 years ago you couldn’t find olive oil in the U.S., you had to go to ethnic grocery stores or as we did, bring it back from Greece. And I have to say (I experienced this firsthand), our diet, my family’s diet and food, the Greek diet was looked down upon when I was growing up in Chicago. Too much olive oil, too much garlic, too much oregano. Fast forward 30 years later and we’re talking about the tyranny of olive oil. It’s kind of ironic though, the very diet that has been proven over and over again to be healthier than the typical westernized diet, is now being attacked.

But back to butter. Yes, butter has a place in the diet and in our cuisine. In Greece, butter was a luxury item plus it is an animal product and since Greeks fasted from animal products for over 180 days a year, butter was not a regular part of their diet. However, during holidays Greek cuisine has plenty of desserts that use butter and not just any butter, they used butter from sheep’s milk. But, again this was only during holidays or special occasions. Today in Greece, we have what I call the tyranny of butter, of cream, of eggs… Foods rich in creams, butter and meat are the only ones that can be considered decadent, while traditional Greek foods cooked in olive oil and tomato are deemed boring or old-fashioned.

Outside of Greece, I have often encountered many negative comments when I talk about olive oil, as if its some sort of conspiracy to push people away from their beloved butter. Perhaps it touches on some sort of patriotic feeling, after all olive oil is not really an American or British product. Objectively though, olive oil is an extremely delicious and healthy fat with plenty of antioxidants and research to support its benefits.

So back to the tyranny of olive oil, from my experience as a dietitian/nutritionist and psychologist, I will say that extremes are not healthy for anyone. Don’t get me wrong, I love butter (and hate margarine) and yes, you can have some butter and yes butter is better in certain recipes, but the majority of fat in the diet should not be saturated. As the ancient Greeks used to say: pan metron ariston: all in good measure.

Photo by Robert S. Donovan for flickr

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  1. I am learning english now but i would like to say thank you to you Elena for your articles. I am Polish but i live in Ireland. I read your articles every day and i use your recipes too.

  2. At the end you say extremes are not healthy. Isn’t it healthier to take the “extreme” approach of cutting out dairy fat completely and replacing it with olive oil? That’s what I’ve done and I don’t feel I’m depriving myself at all, either. For the first year or two I missed cheese, but don’t at all now. BTW, where I live (California), I’m happy to say people are very positive about olive oil and more and more of it is being grown and processed locally here.

    1. Thanks for sharing Chris. The Mediterranean diet is a diet, but also a lifestyle that encourages good life. It is important that you do not feel deprived, so it depends on the person. FYI, full fat cheese was an important part of the traditional Greek-Mediterranean diet, it served as a protein source as meat was scarce, but again the intake was in moderation.

  3. Great article, Elena. I love olive oil AND butter and use both often. As you say sometimes butter works better in certain recipes.
    For me, it’s olive oil where olive oil works … and cream and butter when it doesn’t. The very best of both worlds. x

  4. First generation in the US. My mother always browned butter and grated cheese and drizzled it over spaghetti. The pasta itself had a light coating of olive oil to “prevent sticking”. To this day, even the best pasta dishes I eat at well respected Italian restaurants has a lacking in its flavor without that browned butter. The pasta itself tastes watery without the olive oil.

    Is this a Greek tradition or just my Thessalonian family?

    By the way, my mom also drizzled browned butter over rice (without the cheese).

    Oh, and I remember the days when we had to go to the Greek grocery to get olive oil. I also remember my grandmother bringing back gallons of it from Greece in their steamer trunk, hoping they wouldn’t break from the rough handling by the dock workers.

    Thanks for the great column you write for us!

  5. Hi Elena, thanks for the article! I will also give the Washington Post one a read. Unfortunately in Greece I find that my parent’s generation is still obsessed with Bitam. It’s gross. My aunts will use sheep’s butter only in kourempiedes and Bitam in everything else. Once my aunt made a cake with real butter when I was visiting, per my request, and my uncle refused to eat it because he thinks real butter ‘smells’. I have a feeling that this doesn’t happen exclusively in my family, as Bitam is still pervasive throughout Greece!

    I was wondering if you have read the bestselling book, The Big Fat Surprise. I’m nearly finished with it and the author basically debunks all of the nutritional research that has guided us on a low saturated fat diet for the past 40-odd years. It’s very compelling. Interestingly she treats olive oil as completely separate from other vegetable oils, even those some consider ‘healthy’ – sunflower, canola, etc. She upholds what we Greeks have known for ages – that olive oil is the safest, healthiest and best oil for cooking and frying, simply for scientific reasons – being monounsaturated it does not break down as easily when exposed to oxygen and heat.

    However, she by no means warns against butter and animal fats – quite the contrary. Like I said, it’s a very compelling read and has made me question some of the nutrition mantras most of us have come to accept as universal truths. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book if you’ve read it!


    1. You are so right about the vitam. Heavy marketing in 70’s and 80’s really is ingrained in that generation.
      Regarding the big fat surprise , it is not a sound book scientifically. She twists a lot of the science and simplifies it. But I noticed in one of her talks she did talk about the Greek diet, describing it in a completely different way that it was in reality in order to prove her theory, when in fact she had no clue based on her description. The only thing I can agree with is that low fat does not work, and in fact the Mediterranean diet is not a low fat diet, especially the Cretan diet.

      1. Hello Elena,

        Along those lines that was mentioned. I just finished reading “The obesity Epidemic” by Zoe Harcombe. Have you read it by any chance? If so I would be interested about your thoughts concerning her findings and conclusions. Respectfully, Michael

  6. What a great article Elena! Olive oil competition, butter competition, the world must have gone crazy. I wonder why people cannot make up their own mind for what’s healthy. Living in Greece it’s certainly olive oil for me and no tyranny al all!
    And yes, I love butter too! (margarine should be debarred;-)