Have you noticed anything strange about your butter lately?
Many Canadians are reporting that their Canadian-made butter is actually harder than normal, or displays a strange watery or rubbery texture, even a room temperature.
It’s not the frigid February temperatures to blame. There actually might be a scientific explanation for what many Canadians are calling “buttergate.” On Thursday, the Dairy Farmers of Canada officially asked members to consider using alternatives to palm oil supplements in their dairy feed pending further investigation.
But how might palm oil in cow feed be connected to the firm butter in your fridge? Here’s what you need to know.
What’s up with the butter?
The issue took off on Twitter when Calgary-based food writer Julie Van Rosendaal tweeted about her own butter problems.
Other Canadians have reported firm, watery or rubbery butter for months. While many speculated that cold temperatures or humidity could have something to do with it, the real cause traces all the way back to the cow’s diet.
Van Rosendaal posited several theories on Twitter as to why the butter was harder, from changes in policies and practices to Canada’s tariff rate quota and targeted changes in feeding dairy cows i to improve yield or make the butter more stable.
It appears the latter is most likely.
Dalhousie University food researcher Sylvain Charlebois also tweeted about the hard butter back in December, and has since concluded that palm oil in cow feed is to blame.
“Palm oil given to dairy cows increases the proportion of saturated fat in milk compared to unsaturated fat, thus increasing the melting point of butter,” Charlebois wrote in a recent op-ed. “This explains why butter made from cows fed with palm oil remains difficult to spread at room temperature.”
Both Charlebois and Van Rosendaal have linked the emergence of palm oil in dairy cow feed to the pandemic. According to the Dairy Farmers of Canada, Canadian demand for butter went up by 12.4 per cent in 2020, much of it linked to a wave of home bakers stuck at home with nothing better to do.
In the op-ed, Charlebois says dairy farmers responded to increased demand by adding more palm oil to their cow feed to increase yield.
Van Rosendaal’s investigation also came to the same conclusion. In a piece for the Globe and Mail, she also ended up on the palm oil hypothesis.
“It turns out that palm fats and its byproducts are in fact widely used in livestock feed, not only in Canada but around the world. And palm supplements, often delivered in pellet, flake and micropill form, are marketed to dairy farmers for their ability to boost output and, more importantly, increase fat content in the resulting milk and cream,” she wrote.
Still, not everyone agrees on the palm oil theory.
Alejandro Marangoni, a food science professor at University of Guelph, told the Canadian Press that in the absence of solid data, he’s skeptical of claims about a sector-wide stiffening of butter.
“You have a sensationalist statement that is completely based on zero data, just some feelings,” Marangoni said. “And now the dairy industry is launching an investigation, for what? It might not be true.”
What is palm oil?
Palm oil contains highly saturated edible fats derived from the fruit of the African oil palm, as well as its seeds. It’s found all across a range of processed foods because it makes them taste good and holds shelf stability for a long time. You can also find palm fats in a range of other products, from shampoo to biodiesel fuel.
WATCH: Investigation reveals abuse of women who work in palm oil industry. Story continues below.
Palm oil and fats are a tricky subject, because their product is linked to the heavy deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia that threatens animal habitats. The World Wildlife Fund has launched a campaign to spread awareness around ethical palm oil production.
The World Health Organization has also linked palm oil to several adverse health effects in humans.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said palm oil is an approved ingredient for livestock feeds in Canada.
What are dairy farmers saying?
As buttergate ballooned, Dairy Farmers of Canada initially acknowledged natural shifts in feed production could have an impact on butter consistency.
However, the organization took the step to formally advise dairy farmers against using it in their feed Thursday. The organization has established a working group to investigate the impact of palm acids in dairy feed.
“It is essential that decisions be made on a factual basis and that science guide our sector,” Dairy Farmers of Canada said in a statement. “Notwithstanding this announcement, we stress that all milk produced in Canada is as safe as always to consume and is subject to Canada’s robust health and safety standards.”
Regional dairy associations have expressed support for the investigation.
“Canadian dairy are going to do better,” Alberta Milk chair Stuart Boeve said in a statement Thursday.
With files from the Canadian Press.