As many Canadians chose to bake their way through the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a large rise in butter consumption. Cookies, pies, scones, and cakes are just a few of the many baked goods created with the popular dairy fat. In early 2021 I, among many other Canadians, noticed something was not quite the same with store-bought butter. It was harder than usual and not as easily spreadable or whippable at room temperature. I chalked it up to the winter weather and the kitchen being colder than it usually is in the summertime. It wasn’t until a tweet from Calgary-based chef and food writer, Julie Van Rosendaal, went viral that I realized I wasn’t alone in noticing this strange change in butter.
Something is up with our butter supply, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it. Have you noticed it’s no longer soft at room temperature? Watery? Rubbery? pic.twitter.com/AblDzGiRQY— Julie Van Rosendaal (@dinnerwithjulie) February 5, 2021
As Van Rosendaal’s tweet received hundreds of replies, she decided the topic deserved an investigation. She wrote about her findings in an article in The Globe And Mail on February 20. In summary, Van Rosendaal discovered that palm oil and its byproducts are used among many dairy farmers in the feed given to their cows. “Palm fats in a dairy cow’s diet are known to alter the saturated fatty acid profile of the resulting milk fat,” Van Rosendall wrote for The Globe and Mail “as well – a shift that could show up in butter that’s firmer at room temperature“. Although this is perfectly legal, whether or not palm oil should be used is a controversial issue. The production of palm products results in massive deforestation, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia, and contributes to climate change. Additionally, the World Health Organization has reported that a higher intake of palmitic acid (palm-kernel oil extracted from the palm seed) can be associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
As I tried to understand what exactly was happening to the butter and why farmers were using palm products in the first place, I found myself getting more confused with each scientific fact and statistic I read. So I decided to go directly to the source- my father, a third-generation farmer and dairy farmer for the past 35 years. He explained to me that while he personally chooses not to feed palm supplements to his cattle, feeding this to cows will greatly increase the butterfat content of the milk produced. Butterfat is the layer of fat that is skimmed off of milk and used to make products like cream, butter and cheese and is also the most profitable part of the milk supply. Things were now starting to fall into place and I was beginning to understand why so many farmers were feeding it to their cows. Dairy farmers are paid based on the components of their milk such as butterfat, protein, lactose and other solids, rather than the overall volume. Butterfat has the highest value and pay-off out of these milk solids.
Although palm oil has been used in Canadian products for decades, the increase in butter consumption during the pandemic has resulted in the sudden shift of its texture. Butter used to be cheaper in stores and softer at room temperature because a large percentage of the population used margarine. Farmers began feeding more palm-based supplements to their cattle as the demand for butterfat increased. As a result, the butter now contains a greater percentage of palmitic acid content that has been passed on through the cow’s feed.
Whether or not the farmer chooses to use palm supplements is their decision, one that is made based upon their cow’s, farm’s and customer’s needs. We will most likely not see a halt on palm oil in our dairy products any time soon, but I have a feeling that as the pandemic rages on many will choose to start experimenting with churning their own butter. If smooth, creamy butter is as important to your daily life as it is mine, then this pioneer-like idea won’t sound so farfetched.