What is Butterfat?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Butterfat is the fatty component of milk, composed of a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. The amount of fat in cow milk varies, depending on a number of factors including the time of year, the cow's diet, and the cow's age. Regulations defining various dairy products and the differences between them often use butterfat as a standardizing measure because it is easy to measure and dairy products can be adjusted to ensure they have uniform fat contents.

Glasses of skim milk, which has much less butterfat than whole milk.
Glasses of skim milk, which has much less butterfat than whole milk.

In fresh milk, butterfat takes the form of small globules of fat that can be seen under magnification. If the milk is allowed to stand, the fat slowly rises to the top. Historically, people would let milk stand after milking and then skim it to remove the fat for churning into butter and cream products. Today, milk is more commonly spun in centrifuges to separate out the fatty components, allowing the milk to be kept in chilled and sterile conditions at all times.

Whole milk is creamier than skim milk, but is also high in unhealthy saturated fats.
Whole milk is creamier than skim milk, but is also high in unhealthy saturated fats.

In homogenized milk, the butterfat is broken up so it will not filter out, but instead remains suspended in the fluids of the milk, in a solution known as a colloid. This is done with milk and cream to prevent the butterfat from separating, although it is sometimes possible to purchase specialty products that have not been homogenized and will separate if allowed to stand.

The butterfat content of half and half cream is typically between 10% and 18%.
The butterfat content of half and half cream is typically between 10% and 18%.

Whole milk usually has around 3.5% butterfat. Whipping cream can have between 30 and 35%, and heavy cream has at least 36%. Butter is almost entirely fat, as it is made by separating out the fat and then whipping it to encourage it to coalesce into a mass. Butters usually have a minimum of 80% fat. Dairy products are tested to confirm that they are being labeled appropriately and their fat content may be adjusted to meet a desired sales standard.

As many dairy consumers have noticed, fat content has a profound impact on mouthfeel. Whole milk tends to taste more rich and creamy than nonfat and skim milk products, while whipping cream, if tasted straight, can feel almost heavy and greasy because it has so much fat. Ice creams are impacted by the amount of butterfat present. If it is too low, the ice cream tastes icy and watery, while high fat contents result in greasy, sticky ice cream products. Companies that make ice cream commercially have very strict standards for the milk they will accept for production to ensure their butterfat content remains consistent so consumers do not complain about flavor variations.

The amount of butterfat in a cow's milk depends on a variety of factors.
The amount of butterfat in a cow's milk depends on a variety of factors.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Does anyone know if there is a tool that I can buy to measure the amount of butterfat in our dairy cow's milk?


My husband refuses to drink anything but whole milk. I don't like the regular kind, but whole chocolate milk is wonderful.

I have tried both the low fat and whole versions of this, and the whole milk is definitely a winner. I guess the fatter the chocolate, the better it tastes!

I can understand why he prefers the milk with more fat in it. Granted, it does have more flavor. I just don't like for my white milk to overpower what I eat it with, like cereal. It's just there to moisten the grains.


I had no idea that butter was 80% fat! That is terrible! I'm glad I use a reduced fat margarine.

I don't like the taste of cream very much, so I don't like regular butter. It is way too rich for my tastes.

I use just a small amount of margarine on things like English muffins and corn on the cob. I like its light, savory taste. I have been forced to eat butter in restaurants, and it is just way too overpowering.


I don't feel good about consuming butterfat, but I allow myself to have a little of it in my reduced fat milk. It's better than skim milk, which tastes so watered down.

I don't like the taste of whole milk, mostly because I can detect a high level of butterfat. It just feels like it would make me sick.

I don't drink milk straight very often. I use it in my cereal and coffee, so I don't really get a lot of the small amount of butterfat that is present in it.

Reduced fat milk is the perfect happy medium for me. I buy the 2% low fat kind, and now, any other kind just doesn't taste like milk.


I was afraid that heavy whipping cream was full of fat. I use it to make delicious chocolate truffles, and I have avoided looking at the nutrition facts, because I don't want to feel bad about eating something so good.

After I make the truffles with the cream, my husband whips up some more heavy whipping cream with the mixer, and we dip the truffles into it, so we get twice the serving size, at least. I could tell that our homemade whipped cream was much thicker and flavorful than the light and airy kind that comes in a carton.


@strawCake - I'm with you-I usually don't like to buy low-fat anything. I prefer to just eat a balanced diet and let everything work itself out!

I've actually never heard of butterfat before. I had no idea that fat content was the difference between heavy cream and whipping cream.

However, I have a lot of experience making my own whipped cream. My family prefers to whip our own whipped cream for special occasions like Christmas and Thanksgiving. We just use a mixer and mix it until it turns into whipped cream. You have to be careful not over-mix though-then it starts turning itself into butter!


I think butterfat is splendid! I really don't like to buy dairy products that are low fat. I think they generally tend to taste pretty disgusting.

Instead, I prefer to buy the "full-fat" products and just eat them in moderation. I would rather eat a little bit of something that tastes good than a lot of something that tastes only mediocre.

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