What Is Butterfat?

by Jackie Thesing

March 10, 2023

by Jackie Thesing

Have you ever heard the term “butterfat” when shopping for milk, cream or butter and wondered what it means? Let’s dig into what butterfat is and why it matters when choosing your butter and milk products.

What Is the Meaning of Butterfat?

Butterfat is the natural fat that is found in milk. It’s what gives dairy products like milk, cream and butter their rich taste and texture. In fresh cow’s milk, butterfat will rise to the top if allowed to settle and will form a “cream layer” or thick layer of fat on the surface of the milk. 


This is the fat that is separated off during milk processing to create the milk fat percentages that you’ll find in grocery stores. It is also the fat that is used to make butter.

Milk, cream and butter are typically labeled and sold based on the amount of butterfat they contain. Butterfat is not the same as butter. In the United States, all butter must be at least 80% butterfat (with the remaining ingredients typically water and milk solids).

Since the butterfat is what primarily contributes to the taste and quality of the butter, the more butterfat, the better the butter. Organic Valley butter exceeds the butterfat minimum and contains 84% butterfat in salted and unsalted butter.

Many also ask, is butterfat a dairy? Since butterfat comes from milk, the answer is yes. Butterfat does fall into the dairy category.

Butterfat does not contain lactose. Given the almost negligible amount of lactose in butterfat and butter, people with lactose intolerances can typically consume it without a problem. Organic Valley also offers Lactose-Free Milk (read more about it here).

Is Butterfat the Same as Milk Fat?

The terms butterfat and milk fat can be used interchangeably. Both refer to the natural fat found in milk. Scientifically, milk fat or butterfat is mainly composed of triglycerides, which are a combination of glycerol and fatty acids.

How Much Butterfat Is in Milk?

You’ve seen the different types of milk in the grocery store, so let’s dive into what those labels really mean. Milk is labeled with the amount of milk fat (or butterfat) it contains.

You will typically see skim or nonfat milk, 1% milk, 2% milk and whole milk on store shelves. For example, Organic Valley Skim Milk contains 0% milk fat, while Organic Valley Reduced Fat 2% Milk contains 2% milk fat. Organic Valley Whole Milk contains about 3.25% milk fat, except in California where it is 3.5%.

Butterfat in Ghee

Organic Valley Ghee starts off as organic, pasture-raised butter with 80 to 84% butterfat, then it is slowly simmered to coax out all of the excess water. What’s left behind is almost all butterfat. Ghee is also 100% lactose-free since even the small amounts of lactose in butter are simmered off during the cooking process. Learn more about ghee here.

The amount of butterfat in a product will contribute greatly to the overall taste and texture. Whole milk is thicker and has a richer taste than skim milk. Cream products with higher fat content like heavy cream, if tasted on their own, might seem greasy and overly heavy due to their very high butterfat content. Organic Valley Heavy Cream has a minimum 40% butterfat which easily whips into soft whipped peaks. Its rich flavor also works well as a creamer or as an ingredient in baked goods.

What Determines the Amount of Butterfat in Milk?

Now that we know that butterfat is the natural fat found in cows’ milk, does the milk from different cows have the same butterfat content? The simple answer is no. 

The most common factors influencing the fat content in a cow’s milk are the specific breed of dairy cow and its lineage, feeding patterns, age and the overall animal management and milking process. So, aside from the cow’s age and heritage, their milk fat content is very much influenced by how well the cow is taken care of. 

Organic Valley cows are pasture-raised and brought up humanely without antibiotics. These preferred conditions lead the dairy cows to naturally produce milk with a higher fat content. This milk that is richer in butterfat can then be used to make more high-quality and flavorful dairy products like Organic Valley Butter, Organic Valley Ghee and Organic Valley Whole Milk. Learn more about the happy cow difference here!

A boy pets a cow in a mountainous landscape at the Pearson organic dairy farm in Washington.

The Pearson family organic farm in Washington.

Is Butterfat Healthy?

Butterfat is made up of saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends that 5% to 6% of one’s overall calorie intake should come from saturated fat. So, for a 2,000-calorie diet, one could consume 13 grams of saturated fat per day. 

While excessive amounts of saturated fats are not recommended as part of an everyday diet, foods with a high butterfat content like butter and ghee can be enjoyed in moderation with a well-balanced diet. 

Fat content aside, products with high butterfat content like ghee and butter contain many vitamins and antioxidants that are important for one’s daily diet as well. While these fats should be consumed in moderation, according to Web MD, they also help with the body’s absorption of essential vitamins and minerals.

Why Choose Organic Dairy?

Butterfat is an important naturally occurring fat that makes its way into all dairy products. This important component comes straight from the source — raw cow’s milk. With Organic Valley’s happy cows and high standards, you can be confident that you’re consuming high-quality products when choosing Organic Valley.

Visit our store locator to find Organic Valley products near you.

Jackie Thesing

Jackie Thesing is a Minnesota girl, born and raised. She, her husband, and two daughters live in the Twin Cities area where they love to spend time outside and be together as a family. After leaving her corporate job to stay home with her daughters, Jackie created a blog, Sweet Girl Treats, to share her favorite recipes and baking tips. When Jackie isn’t busy with the many tasks of motherhood, you’ll likely find her in the kitchen developing new desserts, probably with at least one of her “sweet girls” at her side! Follow Jackie’s baking journey on her Instagram page @sweetgirltreatsmn.