I adore dairy. I need cream in my coffee, and the largest drawer in my fridge is dedicated to cheese. My mom used to find finger swipes through the butter dish when I was little – I loved butter so much, I’d eat it straight. I still do sometimes, mostly for research purposes. Butter and I go way back. I know it well.
As a recipe writer, my habit has been to specify “butter, at room temperature” on ingredient lists for doughs and batters, but I started to rethink this strategy as I began to notice butter was no longer soft enough to work with straight out of the butter dish. The change was so gradual, I didn’t register it at first: Even straight from the countertop, I had to routinely pop a slab into the microwave to ease it back from bread-tearing consistency.
I figured my kitchen was chilly. Only at the height of summer did my butter go freely from cupboard to mixing bowl to be effortlessly beaten into cookie dough or buttercream submission. And I often found room-temperature butter firm enough to work into pie pastry – in the past, I always made sure it was fridge-cold for optimal texture.
I realized this was a thing when other people started pointing it out. A few tweeted me last spring, when the first issue of stay-at-home orders drove people into their kitchens to bake: Why is butter not soft at room temperature any more?
I called and texted bakers and pastry chefs who agreed, most adding, “Now that you mention it,” and “I thought it was just me!”
I paid closer attention through the summer’s fruit-crisp season, fall pie season and holiday cookie season, noting the firm-butter phenomenon didn’t appear limited to any particular time of year, butter brand or price range. When I finally posed the question on social media on Feb. 5, the deluge of responses made it clear it wasn’t just my kitchen – nor anyone else’s.
What was going on with butter? In my mind, the answer likely had to do with a change in the properties of the fat itself; saturated fats, such as tallow and lard, are solid at room temperature, and mono- and polyunsaturated fats, such as canola and olive oil, are liquid at room temperature. Milk fat has among the most complex fatty-acid profiles of all the dietary fats, and when it comes to dairy, what comes out has very much to do with what goes in.
Canada’s dairy industry is unique in that it’s protected by our supply-management system: In order to keep retail prices stable, the production of certain commodities, including dairy, is limited to what Canadians are anticipated to consume. All dairy farmers in the country are protected under this umbrella, and strict import controls mean very little of our dairy supply comes from outside the country.
According to Canadian regulations, butter must contain no less than 80-per-cent milk fat, also known as butterfat (the terms are interchangeable), and may contain milk solids, bacterial culture (used in cultured butter), salt and food colour. European butters are mandated to have a higher percentage of fat; most are in the 82- to 85-per-cent range, making it preferable for pastry chefs who need a higher ratio of fat to liquid. (And yes, some Canadian processors make butter with a higher quantity of fat, often labelled European-style.)
Alarm bells went off when I received a direct message on Instagram from someone who had worked in the livestock feed industry, offering insight into the unspreadability of butter. They suggested the current pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions could be a factor, particularly when it comes to overseas imports. Dairy feed uses a lot of palm fats and molasses, the person said, which must be shipped from overseas.
Palm oil? In our dairy-cow feed?
Though this theory hinged on distribution issues, the mention of palm set me on the right track. 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.
However, palm fats in a dairy cow’s diet are known to alter the saturated fatty acid profile of the resulting milk fat, as well – a shift that could show up in butter that’s firmer at room temperature.
“People are definitely feeding high-palmitic-acid-content fats to cows these days,” confirms Alejandro G. Marangoni, a professor and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph. “This would increase the long-chain saturated fatty acid profile of milk fat, but also change other things. This will definitely affect final butter texture.”
Though it’s perfectly legal for dairy farmers to use palm fat in livestock feed, whether they should be is a contentious issue. Many scientists and industry experts declined to even speak about it, or didn’t want their names used.
As for the Dairy Farmers of Canada, a powerful lobby group whose constituents contribute $19.9-billion annually to Canada’s GDP, it released a pair of statements in mid-February partly in response to my queries: “There are many different factors that can have subtle impacts on the taste, texture and the melting point of butter, including differences in a cow’s diet from one region to another or from one season to the next,” read one. Another noted: “Exact cow feed rations are determined at the farm level in consultation with animal nutrition experts and may impact the complexity of butter in various ways.”
Palm fats are highly saturated edible fats derived from the fruit of the African oil palm, as well as its seeds. (Palm oil comes from the palm fruit; palm-kernel oil is extracted from its seed.)
Palm-kernel oil in particular is very high in saturated fatty acids – about 82 per cent – and contains the saturated long-chain fatty acid known as palmitic acid. Palmitic acid is common – it’s found naturally in butter, cheese, milk and meat – but as its name suggests, it’s a major component of palm fats, which are widely used in the food processing sector. The oil is cheap to produce, has a high smoke point and provides stability, smooth mouthfeel and other desirable characteristics to everything from cookies to instant noodles. Beyond food manufacturing, palm fats and byproducts are used in a vast range of everyday products, from cosmetics to cleaning agents to biofuels.
Though ubiquitous, palm fats and their derivatives are also controversial. Many consumers seek them out on food labels so they can avoid them for health and environmental reasons. Globally, 85 per cent of palm products come from Malaysia and Indonesia, and their production is linked to massive deforestation that contributes to climate change, and has damaged or destroyed the habitats of species including the orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino.
Furthermore, the World Health Organization has reported, in a public consultation that included Health Canada, that though total intake of saturated fat was not associated with coronary heart disease risk, a higher intake of palmitic acid is.
As for the use of palm fats in feed supplements, that’s not new. Canadian dairy farmers started using them around 2001, but they’ve become more prevalent in recent years in response to an increase in demand for butterfat.
A couple of decades ago, butterfat wasn’t nearly as popular. “We were challenging our nutritionist to reduce the amount of fat we were producing because the demand was for fluid milk and proteins, and there was a surplus of fat,” says Jeff Nonay, a third-generation dairy farmer at Lakeside Dairy in Sturgeon County, Alta. “Butter was cheap because everyone was buying margarine.”
Now, however, the industry is all about fat. Nonay says his operation used palm-fat supplements for about five months over a span of five to seven years during poor growing seasons, when the farm didn’t have access to high-energy feed. “Canada was slow on the uptake, but across the industrialized world, to produce dairy products at the price point consumers want, there has been a huge driver to find efficiencies. Palm fat is one of them,” Nonay says (though he stopped using it at Lakeside because his operation was able to increase butterfat without it).
Barry Robinson has been working with dairies on practical nutrition for the past 30 years. “Feeding significant quantities of palm fat is the biggest nutritional change in the past five years,” says Robinson, a PhD in animal nutrition who works with Great Northern Livestock Consulting in Westlock, Alta. “In my experience in the Prairie provinces, 80 to 90 per cent of dairy farms use some level of palm fat.” A colleague of his in Edmonton estimates it’s at more than 90 per cent. Another in Eastern Ontario suggests half of the dairy herds in Eastern Ontario consume palm-based supplements
So how exactly do these supplements ultimately make for less spreadable butter? Palmitic acid has a melting point of 63 C and is almost insoluble in water and rumen fluid. (The rumen is the first and most significant digestive compartment of ruminant animals, including cows; in livestock feed, palmitic acid is known as a bypass fat.) David Christensen, a professor emeritus at the department of animal and poultry science at the University of Saskatchewan, explained in an academic study published in March, 2019, that this means it has little effect on rumen fermentation and passes through into the small intestine, where up to 80 per cent is absorbed.
Christensen’s report said that research over the past 15 years has found about 35 per cent of the palmitic acid consumed in feed appears in the milk. “Because of its high melting point, it will increase the melting point of butter and affect the texture of cheese,” it continued. “It has been suggested that more than 32 per cent palmitic acid in milk fatty acids may result in noticeable changes in butter and cheese characteristics.”
In the food science department at the University of Guelph, Hannah Woodhouse is currently conducting research around free fatty acids in milk. “From my knowledge of milk-fat composition, elevated free fatty acids could potentially explain why butter remains hard at room temperature,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Since milk fat is two-thirds saturated fatty acids (which provide a more rigid structure than unsaturated fatty acids), increasing the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fatty acids in the butter can contribute to a more ‘solid’ state.”
Previous literature on free fatty acids suggests feeding cows high levels of a fat supplement, usually palmitic acid, can elevate free fatty acid levels, she said, adding that right now, they only see a correlation between feeding levels above 300 grams per head a day and elevated amounts of free fatty acids.
According to Christensen’s 2019 study, palm supplements are usually fed to Holstein cows at 200 to 400 grams per cow daily, or approximately 1 per cent to 2 per cent of total dry rations. But current feeding recommendations from companies that manufacture palm-based supplements are higher: Jefo Dairy Fat, a high-palmitic-acid energy supplement for dairy cattle sold by Coastal Agri Commodities in Milford, N.S., suggests rations of 400 to 900 grams per head a day (depending on the stage of lactation), or up to 5 per cent of diet. MooFAT P890, a free fatty acid-based palm fat designed for dairy cows produced by Agribution Canada in Steinbach, Man., has a similar suggested feeding rate: 450 to 900 grams per head a day, depending on whether the cow is in early-, mid- or late-stage lactation.
Why are we noticing this now? Because Canadians want more butter – according to the Dairy Farmers of Canada, retail butter purchases were up 12.4 per cent in 2020. (We baked a lot.) Dairy farmers are paid based on the components of their milk – butterfat, protein, and lactose and other solids – rather than overall volume. And though prices fluctuate, butterfat has a higher value than protein and other solids.
But it also means dairy farmers need to produce more butterfat with fewer cows. Canada’s dairy-cow population has been dropping for years. In 2014, it was 696,737. In 2019, it was 621,509. Yet total milk quota has increased year after year for the past decade – which ultimately means more efficiencies in the system.
The pandemic caused another decrease in the cow population this past spring. In the early days, the closing of schools and restaurants meant demand for milk plummeted, resulting in a higher-than-usual cull of dairy cows, according to the Canadian Dairy Information Centre. (Culled dairy cows go to the beef market.) “The future market for milk was unsure to many farmers, and they couldn’t afford to feed extra cows for them to make milk that was then dumped down the drain,” the CDIC told me in an e-mail.
But then home cooking started to rise, and demand for retail dairy products rebounded in a big way. “Farmers were asked by the processors to increase production, but to get more replacement cows would take a while,” says Daniel Scothorn, who leads a Nova Scotia-based nutritional consulting company that imports palmitic acid for use in livestock supplements. “It makes more sense to feed them a higher-calorie diet to meet immediate demands.”
Joe Mans owns Vital Green Farms, an organic farm that produces some of my favourite dairy products (though not butter) in Picture Butte, Alta. “The whole industry is short of butterfat, and palm fat boosts your butterfat by two- or three-tenths of a per cent, so it’s a huge booster,” he says. But he doesn’t use it, and says some processors don’t want it. “Especially the cheese makers – it changes the flavour and texture,” Mans says.
As for consumers who want to avoid palm-based products, it’s currently tough to determine whether or not they’re part of the dairy equation – it’s not like we can look for it on the ingredient label of the resulting milk, butter or cheese when it’s used in the feed itself. Dairy Farmers of Canada is in the process of introducing a new standard around the certification of milk produced from grass-fed cows that would exclude any oil or fat supplements, including palm-based ingredients, according to Lucie Boileau, the organization’s director of communications. The program would be voluntary, but farms that want to use the words “grass fed” on their labels will need to comply. Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s Interim Grass-Fed Milk Standard similarly prohibits the use of plant or animal oils and fats in a cow’s feed.
But the resulting products can be expensive: Organic and grass-fed butters, for instance, generally cost up to six times as much as regular commercial butter, so they won’t be an option for many. Your best bet might be to seek out a local producer to ask directly about their policy around palm fats.
Science might also come to the rescue of palm-averse, price-conscious consumers. Studies have shown that high omega-3 forages such as flax can offset the increase in palmitic acid when paired with palm supplements, and food scientists and agronomists have been looking into Canadian-grown sources of palmitic acid, finding some potential in a specific variety of sunflower. But as in other industries, it’s tough to compete with the efficiency and low cost of palm oil. Some livestock feed companies have moved toward more sustainable palm sources. “By the end of 2025, our ambition is to source soy and oil palm ingredients that are free from both legal and illegal deforestation, with the purpose of limiting our impact on biodiversity and climate change,” feed giant Nutreco states in a new corporate policy.
Palm products aren’t likely to go away any time soon – though their use has been affected by pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions. “There’s a shortage of palm fats right now due to delayed international shipping,” Barry Robinson says. “Farmers are rebalancing the rations with less – one of the major feed companies cut back 27 per cent for every customer.” There are no other fats on the market that boost butterfat like palm fat, he says – the tallow that was previously fed to dairy cows before the arrival of palm fats requires heating and added equipment, and is generally no longer in use. And though high in energy density (a.k.a. calories), unsaturated fats such as canola oil tend to decrease the percentage of butterfat in the resulting milk.
Besides, says Robinson, if palm fats disappeared tomorrow, the dairy industry would need to milk around 5-per-cent more cows to produce the same quantity of butterfat, which would come with its own environmental implications – Canada’s dairy industry is responsible for about one-fifth of the total greenhouse gas emissions generated by livestock production. “If we’re talking environmental impact, palm fats are an effective tool to reduce the carbon footprint of the dairy industry. Use of palm fat reduces the number of cows necessary to fulfill the dairy quota in Canada.”
Whether or not to use palm-based supplements is a decision made on each individual farm, based on each farmer’s understanding of what’s best for her or his cows, customers and business – just as we all make daily decisions about what to eat and how to source our ingredients. Our food system is largely driven by demand, and demand is guided by consumers’ awareness of how that system works. Often it’s a matter of knowing the right questions to ask, and understanding why it matters – not only to the home baker and butter manufacturer, but to the farmer and the cow. And even the orangutan.
Maybe it’s not such a bad thing if our butter supply is a bit less homogeneous – if farmers and producers make different decisions, and we start to pay more attention. More variety might mean we can make selections based on taste, texture and terroir, choosing brands based on farming practices that are best suited for each use – firmer for pastry, soft for waffles, sweet (and made with the very best cream) to spread on a saltine. Maybe we’ll even spend some of our extra pandemic time making our own butter. Keeping that creamy goodness in my life is worth the effort.
On Feb. 19, Dairy Farmers of Canada released an updated statement, announcing its intention to create a working group to assess current literature and gaps in data, and work with dairy farmers, processors and industry experts, and seek input from consumers around how best to address this issue.
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