Butter from the salad bar…
Over the last year or so I have been visiting a lot of farms, talking to farmers and learning as much as I can about farming. I passionately believe that sustainable and regenerative agriculture needs to be intimately understood and linked to healthy eating - the same set of principles and actions are right for our health, right for the environment and right for animal welfare. Farming and food are not two separate industries, they are one and the same thing.
I recently visited the absolutely wonderful Smiling Tree Farm in Shropshire, where organic farmer Christine Page was kind enough to share her time and knowledge with me and show me around her farm. This post comes right out of my ‘Things I have been learning about whole foods this week’ files.
We know that vitamins and minerals are good for us.
We know that we are supposed to “eat the rainbow” or “eat the colour spectrum” or something like that, meaning we are supposed to eat many different coloured fruits and vegetables to get a broad variety of vitamins, minerals, flavonoids and enzymes. I am sure you have heard this, I know I have said it many times before in my live seminars and written about this in blog posts.
Different colours in the plant world tend to indicate different nutrients. Oranges, reds and yellows come from carotenes – we have all heard how we eat our carrots for beta-carotene, a substance that our bodies can use to convert into vitamin A if we need it. So if our diet is low in good food sources of vitamin A, such as liver, butter, oily fish and free range eggs, then we can use the beta-carotene from carrots, sweet potato, butternut squash and other vegetables to make vitamin A.
If you have been to a Mother Nature’s Diet 1-day seminar when I talk about food sources of vitamin A, we cover this. Quite a few green veggies also provide some vitamin A, such as kale and spinach.
The carotenes from green food, also provide the yellowness of butter.
So the cow eats her greens (grass, flowers, herbs) and gets her carotenes, and she passes this goodness on as vitamin A in her milk. The deeper the yellow or orange colour of the butter, then that is a fairly solid indicator of the vitamin A content of the butter.
Personally, I mostly avoid dairy in my diet, apart from butter. I eat a little artisanal cheese from time to time if I can get a good organic source, and I have goats’ milk yoghurt some times, but that’s mostly it. However, I do eat butter, mainly for cooking eggs, but also I sometimes add butter when cooking certain dishes or some times I have some butter with meat, mainly chicken.
One of the things vitamin A does for us is it helps us assimilate proteins. Over the years that saturated fat has been demonised as bad, the nation has become obsessed with ‘lean white meat’ and skinless white chicken breast has become the nation’s meat of choice. Eating chicken breast without the fat under the skin, or the fat of the chickens organs, means eating protein without much vitamin A (a fat soluble nutrient – take away the fat, take away the nutrient), so I actually add butter to my lean white chicken breast so as to increase protein assimilation – no sense pooping good protein down the loo!
The picture above compares good quality UK butter from the supermarket, with top-notch organic 100% grass-fed butter from the farm I visited in Shropshire a few weeks ago. The much deeper orangey colour of the 100% grass-fed butter indicates the much greater vitamin A content of the organic butter. This butter is also much richer in omega-3 fats. Granted, the 100% grass-fed butter costs three times as much as supermarket butter, but if what we want to pay for is nutrients, not just ‘weight of substance’ then it’s actually far better value for money.
Butter is just nutritious fat, that’s all it is really – we mostly eat it for good fats, for vitamin A, and because it tastes nice. This organic butter from 100% grass-fed cows has much higher vitamin A content (the farmer has had it tested, it’s many multiples higher), much better fatty acid profile (low omega 6, because not grain-fed, and super high omega-3), and it tastes delicious. So the expensive butter wins out on all the reasons why we buy butter – it’s actually so tasty I have just been eating it as a stand-alone snack! It’s so thick and creamy it’s almost like a soft cheese!
Salad bar pasture
The reason these organic, 100% grass-fed cows manage to achieve such high levels of vitamin A in their butter, is because their diet is so high in varied carotenes. Folks, there’s grass, and there’s grass. Guru-celebrity farmer Joel Salatin wrote an entire book about this called Salad Bar Beef – let me explain.
Imagine if you were popping round to my house for lunch and I said I was going to make you a salad. You show up and I serve you a plate of iceberg lettuce. Nothing else, just iceberg, the whole plate piled high. You’d just look at me, like ‘What the…?’
Well to a cow, a field of grass like the grass in your garden, that is just one type of grass, is pretty much like that boring plateful of iceberg lettuce. Cows (and sheep, but to a slightly lesser degree I think) love variety in their diet, they want wild meadow flowers, grasses of every variety, plantains, clovers, dandelions, buttercups, shrub leaves and everything else going. Happy cows are going to have 30 plants to chomp on, not just one type of plain boring grass.
If you turned up at my place for lunch and I served you a salad comprised of iceberg lettuce, English round lettuce, rocket leaves, watercress, wild garlic, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, round tomatoes, red pepper, yellow pepper, green pepper, red onion, hard boiled eggs, feta cheese, sliced parma ham, sultanas, olives, grated carrot, cooked beetroot, chunks of celery…and on and on…you’d think that was a delicious salad. Well so it is with cows, and Joel’s book Salad Bar Beef is all about growing thick lush pastures that mimic wild meadows, thick with varied grasses, herbs, flowers and shrubs.
When dairy cows get to graze on meadows thick with varied plant life, they eat a much more varied diet, offering them the chance to do their version of ‘eat the rainbow’ which gives them all the vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, enzymes and carotenes that they want to be super healthy big strong cows. This nutritional strength is then passed on to us through the butter and cheese that cow provides us (or beef). I met a 12-year old dairy cow at Smiling Tree Farm who has been providing milk for about 9 to 10 months out of every 15 or 16, for a decade. Think about how many times her own weight she has provided in top-spec nutrition over her life time – as well as producing several babies who now also produce food themselves. And this cow is loved, she is free range, organic, 100% grass fed, and when she has a calf at foot her milk is shared between her calf and the farmer. This is dairy farming as it should be done.
The farmer achieves all this by practising rotational grazing and by ensuring the pastures grow thick with varied wild grasses, herbs and flowers. The grazing fields are lined with willow trees as borders…the willow grows in ‘corridors’ between fields, hanging over the fences into the fields. Cows know that willow is a “medicinal tree” with leaves rich in minerals, and when a cow instinctively senses it is missing a mineral in its diet, it can reach over the fence and eat willow leaves to get the mineral it needs – willow trees are “multi-mineral pills” for cows and sheep.
Can you see how once again, when we farm the way it should be done, healthy cows produce thick creamy yellow-to-orange coloured butter that is a fantastic nutritious product, providing good dietary fats and lots of vitamin A. Throughout this post I have repeatedly said “100% grass fed” – this is an important point. Butter and cheese come from the cow’s milk – if a cow spent 5 years eating ‘salad bar’ pasture, but then one month eating grains – wheat, soy, corn – the milk from that cow in the last month would immediately deteriorate in quality and nutritional composition, because the milk is made each day based on the cow’s diet in the days before. So ‘grain finished’ is pointless. We want 100% lifetime grass-fed. The only way to get that is to raise cows organically on open pasture, for life. Now you know where and why the Pasture Fed Livestock Association sets its standards.
I paid about £5 each for three blocks of this deep-orangey butter. That’s three times the price of normal butter in the shops, but if we measure the value of my money spent based on how much vitamin A I get for my money, and the fatty acid composition of the butter, then I bought butter that was great value for money. I know some people will say that’s expensive, they can’t pay a fiver for a block of butter - but you have to understand that so much modern processed food is low in nutrients. Do you want to pay £1.50 for butter and basically buy a lump of fat with little nutritional value, or would you prefer to pay three times as much and actually buy food, rich in beneficial fats, vitamins and minerals? If all you want is ‘calories’ then go ahead and live on white rice, table sugar, flour and vegetable oil. Me, I’d rather pay for nutrition.
We can all exact these changes by shopping for local, raw, organic, grass-fed and free range in all our shopping choices. Farmers markets and farm shops give us the chance to speak to food producers and question them over how their animals are raised and how their food is prepared. And now you know – the deeper yellow-to-orange colour of a butter, the deeper the carotene content of the cows diet, and the more vitamin A and better omega-3 fatty acids you’ll get from your butter.
If you are visiting a farm shop and thinking of buying the expensive artisanal butter, you only have to look at the colour to know if your money is being well spent. If it’s some insipid yellow butter, you know that those cows ate a bland diet of ‘standard issue grass’ supplemented with equally bland forage and hay (more of the same, dried cut grass) and therefore the butter (and by extension, all milk, cheese and yoghurt sold from the same dairy) is likely to be of little nutritional superiority to the regular priced stuff in the supermarket. But find a butter that is so yellow it’s almost orange, and you know you are buying top quality nutrients from cows that have lived well outside.
You get what you pay for – just be sure it’s nutrients you are paying for, not packaging and marketing!
I would like to extend my great thanks to Christine Page at Smiling Tree Farm for giving up so much time to share her passion for organic farming with me - I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and learned a great deal.