Buttermilk is a good source of calcium, protein and other nutrients. Limited research also suggests buttermilk might promote heart health. Drinking or baking with buttermilk can be part of a healthy diet. Most often buttermilk is used in baking as a healthier alternative to sweetened-condensed milk.
Buttermilk can play a role in a healthy diet because it contains calcium and protein. Buttermilk that contains live cultures also is a source of probiotics, which are beneficial for the gut.
Buttermilk and Its Uses
Buttermilk comes in two types: traditional and cultured. The traditional variety originated as the protein-rich liquid left after butter was churned from fresh cream, explains the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health. The beverage remains a staple in Nepal, India, and Pakistan. While a few small dairy farms in America make this "real" traditional buttermilk, most of the buttermilk in supermarkets is cultured.
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Cultured buttermilk is primarily made in the U.S. by mixing pasteurized milk with lactic acid-producing bacteria, such as Lactococcus lactis or Lactobacillus bulgaricus. After mixing, it's allowed to ferment for 12 to 24 hours, notes the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.
It comes in either salted or unsalted varieties. Anyone on a low-sodium diet should be cautious with the salted kind because it's often high in sodium.
Buttermilk uses are varied. The beverage makes a good substitution for milk, cream, butter or sour cream in recipes. When used to make baked goods, it imparts a tender texture and slightly tangy taste. Buttermilk is also delicious in salad dressings, smoothies and soups.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services states that buttermilk will stay good in the refrigerator for about two weeks. Experts don't recommend freezing cultured dairy foods.
Buttermilk Benefits for Health
Nutrients in buttermilk include protein, calcium, riboflavin (vitamin B12) and potassium. Some manufacturers add vitamins A and D. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says calcium strengthens bones and teeth, potassium promotes healthy blood pressure and vitamin D fosters optimal levels of calcium and phosphorus.
All dairy products reduce the likelihood of osteoporosis. Aim to include 3 cups of dairy foods in your diet each day.
Low-fat buttermilk contains 8 grams of protein, 100 calories and 2 grams of fat per cup; while whole buttermilk contains 150 calories, 8 grams of fat and 5 grams of saturated fat per cup.
Read more: 7 Surprising Benefits of Fermented Food
Authors of a small clinical trial of 34 people featured in Nutrition in January 2014 state that buttermilk contains a constituent called milk-fat globule membrane, which is plentiful in unusual bioactive proteins. Several prior studies suggest it has anticancer and cholesterol-lowering properties, as well as antibacterial and antiviral actions.
After investigating the effects of short-term buttermilk consumption, the researchers in the Nutrition trial discovered it significantly decreased blood pressure.
A small clinical trial of 34 participants published in Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases in December 2013 studied the effects of buttermilk on cholesterol. It found that consuming two servings per day of reconstituted buttermilk powder for four weeks resulted in lower LDL, or bad, cholesterol, in individuals who began the trial with high cholesterol. Researchers also noted very small decreases in total cholesterol and a reduction in triglycerides.
The above two studies had statistically significant findings, but aren't clinically relevant, says the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health. The takeaway from them is that buttermilk didn't raise blood pressure or cholesterol.
Benefits of Active-Culture Buttermilk
Buttermilk with active cultures (which you can make at home if you can't find it in stores) contains probiotics. Such microbes enhance immunity, improve digestion and boost nutrient absorption, notes Harvard Health.
In a healthy gut, the population of friendly bacteria is larger than that of unfriendly bacteria. Probiotics help create a barrier against the unfriendly bacterial strains. Foods with probiotics also reverse the imbalance in the gut bacterial community caused by antibiotics, which kill the beneficial, as well as the harmful microbes.
Probiotics are also being studied for remediation of joint stiffness, sleeping disorders, mental illness and skin infections. The microbes may also be of value for childhood respiratory and stomach infections.
Read more: 13 Surprising and Beneficial Probiotic Foods
Buttermilk vs. Milk
People who are lactose intolerant don't make enough lactase, the enzyme needed to digest the main carbohydrates in milk called lactose. Consequently, they experience symptoms like bloating, diarrhea and abdominal cramps when they eat dairy foods. Kefir, yogurt and buttermilk with active cultures may be acceptable dairy substitutes for regular milk, according to the Mississippi State University Extension.
The Dairy Council of California explains that probiotic foods help digest lactose in the small intestines before it reaches the colon. So, try buttermilk for stomach problems caused by lactose intolerance.
A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in December 2018 compared the effect of fermented and nonfermented dairy products on cardiovascular health. It found that participants who consumed the most fermented dairy products had a 27-percent reduced risk of heart disease compared to those who consumed the least.
In contrast, individuals in the BJN study who consumed the most nonfermented dairy products had a 52-percent higher risk. The authors concluded that fermented and nonfermented dairy foods can have opposite effects on heart disease likelihood.
Another advantage of buttermilk involves the diet that doctors recommend for gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) in which the stomach contents back up into the esophagus and cause burning.
Low-fat dairy products, including buttermilk, are on the list of foods considered safe for GERD, but whole-fat dairy products are on the list of foods that possibly trigger the condition. Most of the buttermilk in supermarkets is either nonfat or low in fat.
Make Buttermilk at Home
If you have difficulty finding buttermilk with a live culture in the supermarket, you can make it at home, says the Probiotics Center. First, buy a carton of buttermilk and add either a starter or buttermilk starter to initiate the fermentation process. It's a good idea to put in a little milk because it adds sugar that the bacteria will eat to make lactic acid.
Leave the buttermilk out at room temperature for 18 to 24 hours. If you live in a cool climate, put the bowl of buttermilk near a radiator or source of heat. The longer you let the mixture sit, the tangier and more sour it will become. Start tasting it after 18 hours to see if it suits your preference. Once it tastes right, you can store it in the refrigerator for up to five days.
- UC Berkeley School of Public Health: "Buttermilk: Healthier Than It Sounds"
- Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services: "Yogurt"
- United States Department of Agriculture: "Dairy Nutrients and Health Benefits"
- Nutrition: "Effect of Buttermilk Consumption on Blood Pressure in Moderately Hypercholesterolemic Men and Women"
- Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases: "Impact of Buttermilk Consumption on Plasma Lipids and Surrogate Markers of Cholesterol Homeostasis in Men and Women"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Benefits of Probiotic Bacteria"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Probiotics"
- Dairy Council of California: "Health Benefits of Probiotics"
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Intake of Fermented and Non-Fermented Dairy Products and Risk of Incident CHD: The Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Lifestyle Guidelines for the Treatment of GERD"
- Probiotics Center: "Cultured Buttermilk: Light, Tangy, Healthy, Refreshing!"
- Mississippi State University Extension: "What Dairy Products Can I Eat if I’m Lactose Intolerant?"
- University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture: "Yogurt"