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.

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