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Why is some butter so yellow?

Why is some butter so yellow?

Butter comes in many shades, from pale creamy yellow to rich golden orange. The color of butter depends on the cow’s diet and the time of year. Grass-fed cows produce butter with a natural bright yellow hue. While grain-fed cows yield paler butter. Butter made in the summer also tends to be more yellow than winter butter. The yellow color comes from beta-carotene found in grass and green plants, which gets transferred into the cow’s milk fat and concentrated in the butter. So the deeper yellow color indicates higher levels of nutrients like vitamin A. Here’s a closer look at why some butter is so yellow.

What Makes Butter Yellow?

Butter gets its yellow color primarily from beta-carotene, the same pigment that makes carrots orange. Beta-carotene is a type of carotenoid, the fat-soluble plant pigments that act as antioxidants in the human body. Cows obtain beta-carotene from eating green grass and other foraged plants. As the beta-carotene pigment gets metabolized, it ends up in the cow’s milk fat. Butter is made by churning cream to separate the milk fats from the liquid whey. This concentrates the colored fat and creates the solid butter mass we spread onto toast.

Beta-Carotene Content Depends on Cow’s Diet

The levels of beta-carotene found in butter depend entirely on what the cows eat. Cows that graze on fresh pasture grass take in high amounts of beta-carotene from the chlorophyll in the greens. Their milk and butter will be richer in the colorful pigment. Cows fed grain-based diets in feedlots do not get as much green forage. Their milk contains lower beta-carotene levels, creating paler butter. The typical pale commercial butter comes from conventional Holstein cows fed corn, soybean meal, and grains.

Butter Type Cow’s Diet Color
Grass-fed Fresh pasture grass Rich golden yellow
Grain-fed Corn, soy, grains Pale creamy yellow

The exceptions are butter brands that add coloring agents to manipulate the hue. Ideally, butter gets its rich yellow solely from the natural carotenoid content.

Summer Butter is More Yellow

Butter made during the summer months also tends to be more yellow than winter butter. Cows grazing on rapidly growing spring and summer pastures absorb higher amounts of carotenoids. The fresh shoots are more carotenoid-rich compared to mature grasses. Slow winter growth means less chlorophyll and carotenoids in the cows’ diet. This seasonal difference affects the butter color.

In fact, butter was historically whitish from winter milk. Before refrigeration, dairies mainly operated during the summer months. Winter butter was rare. Once mechanical refrigeration allowed for year-round butter-making, producers aimed for consistent yellow coloring. Annatto seed extracts were sometimes added to boost the pale winter butter color to meet consumer expectations.

Why Grass-Fed Butter is Nutritionally Superior

The yellow color of grass-fed butter isn’t just aesthetic – it also indicates higher nutritional quality. The beta-carotene pigments convert into a usable form of vitamin A during digestion. Butter from grass-fed cows provides abundant vitamin A along with vitamins D, E, and K. These fat-soluble vitamins get incorporated into the fat globules in milk. Grain-based diets do not provide cows with as much vitamin-rich forage.

Grass-fed butter also provides a healthier balance of omega fats. It has higher levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats compared to grain-fed butter, which skews more towards unhealthy omega-6 fats. Conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat linked to anti-cancer activity, is also several times more concentrated in grass-fed butter fat.

Nutrient Grass-fed Butter Grain-fed Butter
Vitamin A 33% Daily Value 6% Daily Value
Vitamin D 5% Daily Value 2% Daily Value
Omega-3 fats 117 mg/tbsp 52 mg/tbsp
Conjugated Linoleic Acid 500 mg/tbsp 180 mg/tbsp

The cow diet affects the presence of these nutrients in their milk fat, which then impacts the nutritional value of the resulting butter. Choosing butter from pasture-raised cows provides the health benefits of all the grass nutrients.

Ways to Get Deeper Yellow Butter

Look for butter brands specifying the cows are “pasture-raised” or “grass-fed” for a naturally rich golden color. Small local dairies may also market seasonal butter from spring and summer milk. For baking, seek out European-style butters containing more beta-carotene pigment. Types labeled “cultured” also provide more lactose-digesting probiotics.

When shopping, check the ingredients list for added coloring with annatto extract or other natural sources. Though these mimic the grass-fed color, the nutrients won’t match true pasture-raised quality. For consumer convenience, most commercial butters blend together butter from different seasons and sources to create consistency.

At home, store your butter away from light and heat to help retain the delicate beta-carotene molecules. Oxygenation also degrades the yellow pigments over time, so try to minimize air pockets in the container. For the most vibrant color, use butter within a couple weeks. But properly refrigerated butter can maintain quality for 2-3 months.

Health Benefits of Yellow Butter

The yellow-orange hue in butter signifies the presence of beneficial fat-soluble nutrients:

  • Vitamin A – Needed for vision, immune function, and cell growth. The antioxidant activity promotes skin health.
  • Vitamin D – Crucial for absorbing calcium for strong bones. Also boosts immunity.
  • Vitamin E – Major antioxidant that protects cells from damage and inflammation.
  • Vitamin K – Supports blood clotting. Important for bone and heart health.
  • CLA – Anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties.
  • Omega-3s – Fight inflammation and linked to reduced heart disease.

These key fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants make butter nutritious when sourced from the milk of cows eating fresh pasture. The carotenoid pigments in grass get passed into the butterfat, signaling higher levels of these compounds.


Bright yellow butter delivers the benefits of the carotenoids, vitamins, and antioxidants found in cows’ green grass diets. Choosing pasture-raised butter boosts nutrition compared to paler grain-fed varieties. Grass-fed cows produce more intensely colored “summer gold” butter thanks to their carotenoid-rich diet. Seek out local farmstead butter for the freshest, most colorful butter when cows graze spring through fall. The rich golden color adds visual appeal and nutrition to match.