As It Happens

Melting butter hard? Palm oil may be the culprit, says food researcher

Many Canadians have struggled melting butter to room temperature. Food scientists say the reason for firm butter may be palm oil in cow feed.

High demand pressured the Canadian dairy industry to produce more butter, says Sylvain Charlebois

All that baking Canadians have been doing during the pandemic led to an increased demand in butterfat, says food researcher Sylvain Charlebois. (Anetlanda / Shutterstock)

Read Story Transcript

If you have struggled with your pandemic cooking because of unusually firm butter, you're not alone — dozens of Canadians have recently noticed that it's hard to melt butter to room temperature. And now, food scientists may have found the reason: palm oil used in livestock feed. 

"It is really a quick way to increase the level of butterfat in milk," explained Sylvain Charlebois, a food researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

He has spent the last few months investigating the changes in texture of Canadian-made butter. All signs pointed to the increased use of palmitic acid, a palm oil derivative, in cow feed. 

"The problem with palmitic acid is that you increase the level of saturated fat, which is why the point of fusion for products like butter is much higher now," he said. 

This story was first reported by the Globe and Mail. 

Charlebois spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about his butter investigation. Here's part of their conversation.   

You did a toast test in your kitchen recently. What did you learn? 

My wife and I, we went out, bought organic butter and regular butter made from a dairy-owned co-op, so using Canadian butterfat and Canadian milk. Brought it home, toasted two toasts, put them on the counter right away. Buttered one with regular butter, the other with organic butter. 

The difference was quite stunning. The organic butter melted very easily, was very easy to spread. It smelled like butter. But the regular butter, not only that it didn't smell [like] anything, but it was very difficult to spread. It melted a little bit, but not as much as the organic one. 

Charlebois says Canadians pay a lot more for butter on average than the rest of the world. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

How did you come up with the theory that palm oil might be the culprit as to why the butter was harder? 

I've been intrigued by this since October when the British Columbia Dairy Marketing Board sent out a memo about free fatty acids. I started to call people in the industry: dairy processors, dairy farmers across the country, spoke to some food scientists, animal scientists.  A lot of our conversations pointed to animal feed, and so looked into what we were using to feed animals. And I knew that palmitic acids were allowed in Canada, feeding cows with palm oil. But what I wasn't aware of is that [it] is used much more often now than before.

The last two years, we've seen an increase in the usage of palmitic acids on dairy farms across the country. And last year, we were short of butterfat because we were all home, cooking away. And we wanted more butter and the industry was under pressure to manufacture more butter. 

I think a lot of people are shocked, and I think the reason why Canadians are shocked is because it's dairy in Canada.- 

Wow. And is it legal? 

It is legal. The federal minister of agriculture was alerted to the issue and she said it's up to the province, and some provincial [agriculture] ministers weren't even aware that it was legal as of last week. So some provinces are looking into the matter. It is clearly creating a discomfort not only with consumers, but within the dairy community. 

I think a lot of people are shocked, and I think the reason why Canadians are shocked is because it's dairy in Canada. There's palm oil in a lot of products we buy. It's everywhere: Nutella, crackers. But there is a difference. 

We have a government-sanctioned quota system. Very few people are allowed to produce milk in the country. So there is this social and moral contract that exists between Canadians and the sector. We protect them. We compensate them. We do pay a lot more for dairy products on average than, say, the Americans or other places around the world. In return, we expect quality products. 

And the Blue Cow campaign is about sustainability, local products, purity. When you hear "palm oil," it doesn't marry well with that image. 

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University and lead author of the Canada Food Price Report, said he expects some of the new shopping and lifestyle habits Canadians adopted during the pandemic will become permanent. (Radio-Canada)

So people pay more in Canada, as you point out. But at the same time, consumers like cheaper food. I mean, there's a lot of pressure on the farmers to produce cheaper and cheaper products for those consumers. So we want good stuff, but we want it cheap. 

Yes, but the beauty of supply management is actually [making] changes very quickly. If you decide, say, to ban the practice of giving palmitic acids to cows, you will likely increase the cost of production. But supply management will allow producers to be compensated properly. 

But it will be up to provinces to decide if they want to ban it or not.

So if consumers say, 'Hey, we don't like this,' do you think that they'll stop feeding palm oil to cows that give us butter? 

It's a good question. My guess at this point is that I think some provinces will act on it. They will either decide to penalize farmers for using it, or even ban the practice. Quebec is probably on the top of the list right now: only 22 per cent of farmers use palmitic acids, so it begs the question, what are the other 78 per cent doing then? 

In Alberta, it's 90 per cent. 

Once you get hooked on [using palmitic acid], it's hard to get rid of it. It does increase the butterfat content in the milk at a very low price. It's very cost effective. And supply management is all about cost management. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Written by Olsy Sorokina. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.