On “Natural Butter Flavors”

Reader Jo writes:

Hey Joe! Is diacetyl one of the “natural butter flavors” that I so often see on butter packages?

Indeed it is, Jo. Many American mass-market butters, especially unsalted butters, contain “natural flavors.” The most common are diacetyl, acetic acid, acetoin, ethyl formate, ethyl acetate, 2-butanone and others. In other words, the typical brew of compounds that fermenting bacteria create as they digest sugars.

It all sounds like stuff that runs off a parking lot in a rain storm, but in fact these naturally-occurring chemicals are what give fermented foods – from beer to bread to yogurt and pickles – their flavor. Depending on the proportion in which they’re delivered, they can taste tangy, flowery, bitter, gamey or…buttery.

The question is: are they really necessary? Many butter makers think they are, at least in their unsalted products, which often don’t taste like much (see below posts on butter flavor). So manufacturers add these flavorings, which are often packaged together in a product called “starter distillate” (basically a reduced bread starter minus the live microbes, water and flour). They give mass produced American butters a flavor that’s roughly analogous to a European cultured butter, (a butter made with cream that’s been allowed to ferment a bit).

Of course the next logical question is: why don’t the butter manufacturers just make a cultured butter to begin with and skip the additive? I can think of a couple of reasons. First, because “sweet cream” butter – butter made with nothing but fresh, unsoured cream – has always been considered a premium product in the States. Second, that being the case, the infrastructure at major dairies is set up to produce it. Salted sweet cream butter accounts for over 85% of the butter sold in America, and most people are happy with it. The rest of us buy the unsalted stuff. In an effort to make it competitive in flavor with more expensive specialty or imported butters, manufacturers spike it with this starter culture distillate.

Do I like it? Good question. I buy decent quality (Land O’ Lakes) unsalted butter for day-to-day use around the house. It has starter distillate in it, and I’m fine with it. For pastry making I generally pay up for the imported cultured stuff, which can easily run me double the price. Each has its use, and each has a mixture of diacetyl, acetic acid, acetoin, ethyl formate, ethyl acetate, 2-butanone, etc. in it…some inherent to the product, some added.

Now, there are plenty of epicures out there who will righteously pound the table with outrage over “additives” in their butter. To them I would say: why not stifle the indignation for a moment and go find out what the additive is, how much of it there is, where it comes from and what its function is? A lot of people know what quality food is. Far fewer know and understand the tools and technologies that safe, consistent, high quality food possible.

Furthermore, it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed. Thank you.

10 thoughts on “On “Natural Butter Flavors””

  1. This is so interesting and demystifies so much of the “scariness” of a long ingredients list. I’m in Canada and just came home from the grocery store with run-of-the-mill salted butter. The ingredients list reads “Cream, salt, may contain colour.” I wonder how different it tastes from the stuff with the additives, or if it’s perhaps already cultured? Or perhaps it’s just bland.

    Thanks for the information!

    1. Hey Amanda! Salted sweet butter usually isn’t cultured here in North America, but it’s certainly possible yours is. But do a taste test some time, I think you’d have fun comparing the two!


      – Joe

  2. I typically just buy salted butter from a local dairy for use in everything. Even then I add the full amount of salt recipes call for as I feel if just makes everything taste brighter. I’ve never had anyone tell me my pastries taste salty, just delicious.

    I have tried cultured butter, tasted fine to me but didn’t seem worth the price (I’ve even cultured my own once from raw cream, tasty, but really expensive). And I tried buying unsalted butter once just to see and I ended up returning it to the store. Those additives tasted NOTHING like butter to me. The best I can say for it was it tasted like microwave popcorn, but since I don’t like that stuff that isn’t saying much. I’m not above additives, I do have to admit to the sacrilege of actually preferring artificial vanilla extract to the real stuff. Beats me, but we do all taste things differently. I’ll stick with the plain salted butter.

  3. Which only makes sense, because if you taste cream strait without any sugar, salt or flavoring it really doesn’t have much flavor; mostly just mouth feel. I suppose if you had your own cow out in your own carefully grown pasture with special clover/grass, etc. would be slightly different. . .but I really don’t want to have to milk a cow 2X a day for forever or until I get rid of the cow. . .

    1. My pleasure, Tora!

      And the Carthage thing is just me being stupid. Back in Ancient Rome, every time Cicero finished a rant in the senate, he’d close with “and in my opinion, Carthage must be destroyed!” Carthage was Rome’s rival city. I’ve taken to using that phrase when I know I’m being sanctimonious. 😉


      – Joe

      1. Hey Joy!

        I am sort of joking. I say that when I catch myself preaching about something. Cato the Elder used to say that in the Roman senate. He’d get all worked up on some subject, pounding the table for emphasis. Often he’d finish a diatribe with the phrase “And Carthage must be destroyed!” (et Cartago delenda est). Rome was the mortal enemy of Carthage at the time.

        So it’s a sort of history joke I guess you’d say. One I put on a post now and again when I’m getting a little too preachy. 😉

        Cheers and thanks!

        – Joe

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