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Baffled Canadians Spread Reports Of 'Hard' Butter

Good butter should spread easily at room temperature, right? Well, Canadians have been complaining about strangely "hard" butter for weeks.
Matthew Mead
Good butter should spread easily at room temperature, right? Well, Canadians have been complaining about strangely "hard" butter for weeks.

There's something off about the butter in Canada that's left many flustered residents looking for answers.

For weeks, Canadians have increasingly churned up debate on social media with anecdotes about "hard" butter that fails to spread as easily as it once did.

"Something is up with our butter supply, and I'm going to get to the bottom of it," cookbook author Julie Van Rosendaal tweeted earlier this month, renewing speculation. "Have you noticed it's no longer soft at room temperature? Watery? Rubbery?"

While some respondents blamed cold winter temperatures for the alleged change in consistency, others felt their suspicions were validated.

Some food experts are linking "buttergate" to the increased presence of a palm oil derivative — a conclusion that's been dismissed by the dairy industry, which says it is investigating the matter.

For food researcher Sylvain Charlebois, suspicion began last year when he noticed differences in comparing an organic stick of butter with a regular one.

"Is it me or is #butter much harder now at room temperature?" Charlebois, the senior director of Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab, tweeted in December.

While he says that more testing is needed, Charlebois, who dubbed the saga "buttergate," is convinced that an increased use in palmitic acid — a byproduct of palm oil that's commonly added to cow feed — is the most likely culprit.

Van Rosendaal also has pointed the finger at palm oil, writing in a piece last week for The Globe and Mail that "though it's perfectly legal for dairy farmers to use palm fat in livestock feed, whether they should be is a contentious issue."

Charlebois surmised that a mystery acid could be at work in October, when the British Columbia Milk Marketing Board posted a memo about issues with non-foaming milk in which it mentioned a link between fatty acids and non-foaming milk.

"That's when alarm bells started to ring," Charlebois tells NPR. After calling "trusted" processors in the dairy sector, he says he was led to believe that a shift had happened at the farm level, before the processing stage.

He now connects a sudden spike in consumer butter demand to what he says is an increased use of the palm oil fat on farms since this past summer. Palm-based cow food isn't new, Charlebois says — "It's been used for more than a decade." Farmers regularly add the palmitic acid to animal feed as an energy supplement that allows cows to produce more butter fat content, he says.

But between production slowdown measures and a boom in home cooking, the pandemic put new pressure on dairy farmers. Butter sales in fact grew over 12% in 2020 compared with the previous year, according to the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

To keep up with the recent surge in butter demand, Charlebois says farmers have been boosting the amount of palm oil-based feed in cows' diets to step up supply.

"Palmatic acids are actually quite expensive, but they're cheaper than getting new cows in a barn for sure," he says.

While little research has been done on the health consequences of palm oil-based dairy, he says the main issue is the industry's lack of transparency.

"Whether or not the butter is healthy ... we just don't know," he says. "There's a complete disconnect between animal feed practices and how these food products impact the health of consumers."

This month, the Dairy Farmers of Canada addressed the recent reports of hard butter in a statement, saying that it's unaware of any significant changes in dairy production or processing but that "our sector is working with experts to further assess these reports." Acknowledging the use of palm products, the group asserted that such ingredients "help provide energy to cows and no undesirable effects have been identified." NPR's multiple attempts to contact DFC went unanswered.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations stipulate that butter products must contain at least 80% milk fat. While adding palm oil to butter is legal, Charlebois says the question now is, "Should it be legal?"

"A Buttergate is not what the industry needs, or what Canadians deserve," the food researcher wrote in an op-ed published on Tuesday. He argued that the "concerning" environmental and social impacts associated with palm oil production abroad, does not help an industry that's particularly wary about its public image.

On Wednesday, a group representing some of Canada's major dairy producers yielded to mounting consumer pressure by calling for a banon palm-based dairy products.

Citing environmental concerns related to palm oil production, Les Producteurs de lait du Québec is "asking milk producers to stop using products containing palm oil or its derivatives in the feed of their dairy cattle," read a statement translated from French. "We also ask food manufacturers to adjust their recipes accordingly and food advisors to support our producers with required dietary changes."

The organization also said it would follow the recommendations resulting from DFC's working committee and "will adjust accordingly."

It's unclear whether the ban would be permanent.

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