Let's talk about butterfat, palm oil, and customer feedback

While there are people on social media trying to cast a shadow on the quality and safety of Canadian butter due to a perceived change in its melting point, industry experts say butter consistency, cheese texture, and the composition of milk change every year — and throughout the year — based on ration changes of the cows.

The recent #buttergate hubbub has shone a spotlight on the inclusion of hydrogenated palm oil in cow rations, so let’s talk about butterfat and how what a dairy cow eats impacts the milk she makes and its components.

First, palm oil is an approved feed ingredient in Canada. It’s also a very expensive one, but, as a bypass fat, it can be an effective way to bump butterfat in cow’s milk.

The main type of butterfat in milk is made up of palmitic acid. As Daniel Lefebvre, COO of Lactanet, explains in the interview below, cows put palmitic acid into their milk without ever being fed palm oil. Palmitic acid is a long-chain fatty acid containing a 16-carbon chain and is the dominant fatty acid in Canadian milk. In fact, it’s the most common saturated fatty acid found in animals and plants. And, yes, including a bypass fat, such as palm oil, will increase the level of palmitic acid in milk, but palmitic acid will be there regardless.

For those curious, bypass fat is fat added to a ration that travels through the rumen unchanged (thus by-passing the rumen), and is absorbed in the cow’s intestines. From there, the fatty acids from the blood stream are put into the milk.

Why would a producer choose to use a bypass fat? A few reasons: to help balance a ration, to help make up for shortfalls in the nutritional quality of hay or forage, or to achieve the desired butterfat needed to meet a farm’s monthly quota in Canada’s supply managed system.

It should be noted, however, that palm oil is a very expensive form of fat. Depending on the region, the maximum economical amount fed in a ration will change. Western Canadian dairy farmers are currently paid more per kilogram of butterfat than producers in Ontario and Quebec, for example, so Western Canadian farmers may be able to pencil out palm oil use more easily than those farming in the east.

That being said, is palm oil making butter too firm? Science shows that higher levels of palmitic acid does impact the freezing/melting point of butter. This could be why some consumers have noticed their butter is more firm at room temperature. But, without significant study into the source of the milk used to make that butter, there’s no way to know if it’s the addition of palm oil in a cow’s ration or simply other forage and supplement options that bump the level. (Story continues below)

Hear directly from Daniel Lefebvre, with a full explanation of feeding cows, genetic differences, and the regulatory system in Canada:

There’s also the question of: if butter is more firm, is that really a bad thing?

Lefebvre stresses that palmitic acid is not a health or safety concern. The use of palm oil, from a feed perspective, is safe and an approved by-pass fat. The milk a cow produces if fed palm oil is still healthy and safe, and still subject to Canada’s rigorous health and safety standards.

What a dairy farmer, processor, or milk board can’t decide for consumers is whether or not too-firm butter is a bad thing — that’s a preference, and if consumers demand a change, they shall have one. In addition, if consumers are concerned about the socio-economic or environmental impact of palm oil, that’s a legitimate concern as well.

There’s also no connection between concerns over non-foaming milk reported in B.C. several months ago, Lefebvre says. That issue is also undergoing research, but arises largely from the handling of milk after leaving the cow, and is more closely associated with robotic milking systems. Again, non-foaming milk is not a food safety or health issue, but it is certainly a non-performance concern for specialty coffee shops and so the industry is working to address it.

To dairy farmers’ credit, throughout this entire #buttergate issue they have been open and helpful. I have directly spoken with several farmers in at least four provinces and all of them say the same thing — if customers voice a concern with milk or butter, it needs to be researched fully (some of which is already happening), and if there’s a change needed at the farm level, they’re willing to take that on, too.

Lefebvre echoes that, and if a consumer has a concern with the quality or characteristics of a Canadian dairy product, he says they should contact the processor to let them know.

20 thoughts on “Let’s talk about butterfat, palm oil, and customer feedback

  1. A major research project has started based on the the fatty acid profile of milk. Quebec is testing 1000’s of bulk milk tank samples per day.
    In New Brunswick we are partnering with Lactanet, to start soon on testing a sub-set of herds.
    Lactanet hopes to provide this same testing in all provinces.
    ” milk fatty acid analysis provides continuous monitoring tool at the herd level for dairy producers. It allows to monitor and optimize rumen health at the herd level, evaluate the impact of feeding changes, and evaluate impacts of feed additives or management changes, among others. ”
    From a nutrition and metabolism point of view, 3 groups of FA are of great importance to dairy producers, based on their origin:
    – De novo FA: synthesized in the mammary gland from rumen precursors (volatile fatty acids).
    Useful to evaluate rumen health. Contains all FA of 14 carbons or less.
    – Preformed FA: come from the feeds (forages and grains) or from the mobilization of body
    reserves. Useful to evaluate body weight changes and dietary fat content and type. Contains all
    FA of 17 carbons or more (as well as the C15 fatty acids).
    – Mixed Origin FA: Can come from both above-mentioned sources. Useful to evaluate the
    response to some additives (as palm-rich feeds). Contains all FA of 16 carbons.”
    This analysis is cutting edge technology. Very early data has some surprises.

    Fred Waddy
    Vice-Chair Milk2020

  2. It’s bad enough that there’s a derivative of palm oil in almost every product out there, including hand soap, dish soap, laundry soap, shampoo, conditioner and other hair products, toothpaste, make up, lotions, gels, repellents, hand sanitizer, deodorant, most processed foods, and literally almost every vitamin & health supplement and medicine that is prescribed. There are thousands of people that are allergic to palm oil and all of their derivatives, and now we have to watch out for milk, cream, cheeses and butter?! It would certainly be nice if products could be LABELED as a palm product, instead of hiding behind names like glycerin, magnesium stearate, “vegetable oil”, and the 600 (no exaggeration), other derivative names that they go by. Now you’re feeding it to the livestock!! What next?!

    1. Public trust is one of the most valuable forms forms of capital. It has been depleted so many times by the agriculture and food industries over the years through poor animal welfare, environmental damage, misleading labeling, food additives, and the incentive to market products as forcefully as possible until legally prohibited. It takes years for regulators and lawmakers to catch up to the science and there is huge push-back from industries. How many years is it taking to eliminate hydrogenated oil from our food for example? After the definitive Harvard study in 1993 ( after 13 years of research) it still took until 2006 for this ingredient to be even required on labelling even though the Harvard study showed that consumers of hydrogenated oil were experiencing twice as many heart attacks as those who consumed plain butter. So when you want to “correct” consumers suspicions of profit incentivized adulterations to food, you had better included the scientific research in your articles. Few of us are content to hear that producers are just following current “regulations”. I grew up on a pig farm where at one point we 800 pigs in concrete barns. My dad had originally farmed a diverse group of animals but like so many farmers in 60’s, was convinced by every agricultural consultant that mechanization and specialization were the only way to survive. I remember the excitement building the new modern barns and being part of the new generation of hog producers. Alas within a few years the reality of this industry became apparent. The formerly happy and contented pigs, now in their monotonous and bleak pens, crowded together began biting each others tails which had to be “cropped”. Their need to use their noses to root and explore led to many uplifting the sewer grates and drowning in the pits. They were often sick and so we had to limit all contact with outsiders. My dad tried many things to make their lives better but nothing worked and some, like introducing straw bedding, created even more problems for waste removal. The barns could never handle the humidity in winter or even summer and the smell would sink into your hair and clothing from the first minute you entered. By the time the massive bank loan was paid off and my dad could bulldoze these wretched barns, far too many pigs died in these inhumane conditions. Yet there barns are still being built and there are still far too few regulations on pig welfare in these massive operations and very few inspections. Think how you would feel if this was how we raised puppies and dogs? Pigs are the fourth smartest and most sensitive animal, with dogs reaching only the 6th. Real Agriculture? Let’s get real…

  3. Absolutely ridiculous! It must be labelled accordingly so that consumers have a choice to not buy it.
    By Government allowing this it’s just further proof they want to make us sick – feed big pharma and it’s all about the money: if we’re sick it keeps government in business period.

  4. Palm oil is expensive, give me a break! Butter is expensive so the farmers found a way to make it cheap. Might as well just buy Becel, same oil palm oil. Farmers are going to shoot themselves in the foot. First crappy milk, so we drink almond milk, now crappy butter so just use olive oil and save your heart. Honey is also cheated with high fructose corn syrup. Time for consumers to do the research and see how we are being cheated by these new age farmers.

  5. The article above totally misses the point. I don’t want the tax subsidized butter that I buy coming from cows that have been fed palm oil from deforested tropical rainforests. We pay a premium price for our dairy so why is palm oil added to feed?

    How much visibility is in your palm oil supply chain?

    I take pains not to buy palm oil but it’s hard to avoid as the food labelling requirements are so poor. Until this is addressed I will try and eliminate my use of dairy products and I urge every else to.

  6. This is a bunch of baloney and the government should be more transparent with Canadians as to what is in their food. As a consumer, I should have the right to choose if I’m willing to pay for a food with palm oil or not.
    I read labels religiously and palm oil (and all derivatives) I avoid and make other choices. Sometimes I have to make my own because there are too many additives in our food.
    I have friends who cannot get a proper medical diagnosis to digestive issues because our food is too manipulated.
    The article mentions what’s wrong with firmer butter? My answer to that is Why add ANYTHING to butter? There is a cost benefit to someone and it’s usually not the consumer but our health pays for these decisions.
    Anyone who is health conscious knows that palm oil is a bad oil for our health not to mention the environment.
    Well what’s wrong with softened butter ? Who’s pockets are being lined? We have a right to know what goes in our food.

  7. When will the agriculture industry learn that customer “is always right”. As a customer I ensure my milk, cheese, butter, and other dairy products do not contain palm oil products. I have contacted my dairy provider here locally to ensure that. Grass fed cows produce my dairy. As a customer I try to ensure I don’t buy palm oil products which contribute to vast deforestation. I have sent my M.P. a letter stating my thoughts on this subject.

  8. I’m so appalled to learn the presumed reason for the decline in the quality of butter, and I thank Ms Rosenthal for her investigative work on this matter. You, however, are apologists for a reprehensible practice in the production of dairy fat. I couldn’t understand why butter no longer tasted or behaved as it used to, but now it is clear, and horrifying. It started to change years ago, and the change was gradual, so little by little we got used to it. But recently it has become unrecognizable to me as the heavenly product my mother churned each week from our grass- and hay-fed cow.

    There are many reasons to be concerned, not least of which is the immoral practices of the palm oil trade, but my chief concern is more selfish. I want to know that what goes into my body is pure. I have carefully avoided palm oil as a food ingredient for many years. I should have known long ago that something was up when there was never a seasonal change in colour. That was always passed off as a result of industrial milk production and nothing to be concerned about. Now I see it is much more than that, and many of these poor cows probably haven’t even tasted grass.

    Until this the practice of feeding palm oil to dairy cows is discontinued, I will look for REAL butter, and buy it, regardless of the price.

  9. When is government going to get it through their thick heads? Anything with vegetable oil of any type is liquid death. Stop using that crap in our country, complete ban on that garbage.

    1. Actually, it is not the government but private industry that is doing this. We should also be concerned about feeding bees liquid glucose. Supplements like these reduce the micronutrients that would otherwise have existed in natural food sources. When the Harper Conservatives were in power they reduced a lot of “red tape” regulations on farming as well as inspections. This is the future of big business in farming.

  10. Nope, this ain’t it. This obviously changes the product and there was no transparency. Now it’s come to light and it seems the butter producers didn’t think customers are smart enough to care.

  11. I HAVEN’T USED BUTTER NOR CREAM FOR YEARS. I BOUGHT SOME LACTANTIA BUTTER AND WONDERED WHY IT TASTED SO AWFUL. I WILL NEVER
    BUY LACTANTIA PRODUCTS EVER AGAIN, UNTIL THEY DISCONTINUE THEIR MEANS OF MAKING MORE MONEY TO FEED THE MASS HUMAN
    POPULATION. IT IS BETTER TO HAVE PURE INGREDIENTS EVEN THOUGH IT MAY COST A LITTLE MORE. NO THANKS TO PALM OIL THAT CAUSES
    DEFORESTATION AND THE KILLING OF THE ANIMALS AND PRIMATES RIGHTFUL HOME.

  12. If the feed companies are promoting PALM OIL or Palm Acid in feed to increase butterfat, then this butterfat increase does not happen by magic. I feel let down by the dairy industry. We have enough, no too many additives to our source of food plus in our food, thousands which have never been tested.
    Get with it dairy. Stop trying to exploit that butterfat content by what I consider adulterating our butter

  13. PS And personally I could care less about approved additives. Thousands of additives are in our food, in our products , in our clothes that have never been tested yet accepted. Heck the government cannot even keep Chinese Cadium kids chains and jewelry from being sold in Canada. Pure poison. As the neoliberal governments of Mulroney and Harper reduced our public health inspectors and inspections to just about zip, who do we trust. Personally I do not buy food made in China as a personal decision

  14. Lyndsey, it is my understanding that water is also allowed to be added to butter to dilute the butterfat content to minimal amount required (80%). Can you confirm or deny this?

    1. I am aware of the 80% minimum, but unaware of any processors that have gone on record to say they’ve added water to maintain the minimum. I do know, however, that there are incredibly tough laws (yes, laws) for altering butter from the cream/milk, salt, culture allowances.

  15. I am allergic to SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate). Apparently this substance is a formed from palm oil/ coconut oil. I am appalled that palm oil and coconut oil are being added to more products than I can name – especially butter. Soon, I wonder what I will be able to eat because it’s not added directly to the butter but fed to the cows in their feed. Thus it is not listed and I have no way to identify it or avoid it. Health Canada did not answer when I emailed them.

  16. Aside from the above reasons why producer choose to use a bypass fat, just for a daily consumer reason is the firmer the butter, the more butter you use when spreading — not helping helping health-wise (Canada free health system) nor financial-wise to the consumer; but of course it’s better for the COWS.

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