The mystery started with a tweet and has since launched a full-on investigation.

By Jelisa Castrodale
February 22, 2021
Advertisement

Like so many things in the past decade, this started with a tweet. "Something is up with our butter supply, and I'm going to get to the bottom of it," Canadian cookbook author and food writer Julie Van Rosendaal posted earlier this month. "Have you noticed it's no longer soft at room temperature? Watery? Rubbery?" 

More than 200 people responded, and a lot of them expressed similar concerns about the meltability, spreadability, and over-all... butterability (shhh, it's a word) of this always essential ingredient. Van Rosendaal kept her word about investigating it, and her concerns seem to have prompted a lot of follow-up questions—and she's prompted dozens of other Canadians to look in their fridges to see what's happening with their own sticks of butter. 

Close-Up Of Food In Tray
Credit: Mila Araujo / EyeEm/Getty Images

In a column for The Globe and Mail, Van Rosendaal hypothesized that increased pandemic-era demand (yeah, we've all been baking our way through the chaos) and supply chain disruptions could've affected the kind and composition of livestock feed. Some industry experts have suggested that farmers could be adding palm fats to the feed, which increases the amount of fat in the resulting milk and cream. Explaining the effect of these "high-palmitic-acid-content fats" on cows' milk is quite complicated—and you can read Van Rosendaal's article for all the details—but basically, higher percentages of palmitic acid in the milk can increase the melting point of whatever dairy products are made from it. 

Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab, told CTV News that adding palm fats to the cows' feed was a "plausible" explanation for the harder butter. (Here's where it's worth noting that palm fat is an approved ingredient for livestock feed, and it has been used on dairy farms for the past 20 years. Not all dairy farms, though, because it's quite expensive.)

The Dairy Processors Association of Canada (DPAC) told Real Agriculture that it was aware of the butter-related concerns, but noted that there had been no changes to butter production itself. The only acceptable ingredients in butter, it added, are cream and salt. "These [ingredients] are standardized in Canada by regulations which require butter to contain at least 80 percent milk fat," the organization said. "Canadian-made butter on retail shelves is made only with Canadian cream." 

Dairy Farmers of Canada has also responded to the butter-related questions, twice. In its first statement, it addressed the "recent anecdotal reports" about butter hardness. "The naturally dominant type of saturated fat in butter is called 'palmitic acid.' It is normal for the proportion of palmitic acid to fluctuate within an expected range as a result of seasonal and regional variations in a cow's diet," Daniel Lefebvre, an "expert in cow nutrition and milk composition" told the DFC. 

"This fluctuation can influence the properties of the milk fat, which can affect the temperature at which butter will melt. Our data from routine analyses of the fatty acid profile in milk do not indicate any increase in the proportion of palmitic acid in the past year beyond what would normally be expected." 

In its second statement, DFC specifically mentioned the potential changes to the composition of livestock feed. "Palm products, including those derived from palm oil, are sometimes added to dairy cows' rations in limited amounts to increase the energy density of cow diets if needed," it wrote. "They can help provide energy to cows and no undesirable effects have been identified arising from its use in cows' feed rations." 

The group says that it will be putting together an expert committee to address consumers' concerns. If that involves eating a lot of buttery baked goods, then go ahead, sign us up.