In case you’ve had the feeling recently that your butter doesn’t melt the way it used to, you’re not alone, and you may be onto something. In a controversy dubbed “Buttergate,” Calgary baker and food blogger Julie Van Rosendaal exposed the use of palm fat additives by the Canadian dairy industry and came up with the theory that it is changing the consistency and melting point of our butter.
Rosendaal became curious when a number of people mentioned to her that they had noticed butter did not get soft at room temperature anymore and was harder to spread on their toast or muffins. She did a bit of research and found out that, “Palm fat is marketed to farmers as a way to boost output and increase the butterfat content of the resulting milk” and has become routinely added to dairy cow feed. She theorized that the addition of palm fat to the dairy cows’ diet has increased the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fat in the butter produced from that milk and made it stay more solid at room temperature.
According to the Dairy Farmers of Canada, “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.” They are doing everything they can to reassure Canadian consumers that our dairy farmers hold themselves to the highest standards and that our butter is healthy and safe.
Whether there is any truth to the anecdotal accounts of harder-to-melt butter has yet to be proven, but this is about more than the quality of Canadian butter. A quick scan of recent opinion letters to The Globe and Mail shows that many Canadians are up in arms over this issue and feel they’ve been duped by the Dairy Farmers of Canada. The palm oil industry has come under increasing criticism in recent years for its devastating effects on the environment, including deforestation of valuable tropical rainforests and destruction of crucial orangutan habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia. Many people intentionally avoid any products with palm oil for environmental, animal welfare, and health reasons. To find out they’ve been inadvertently supporting the palm oil industry through consumption of dairy is not sitting well with a lot of folks.
Dairy Farmers of Canada is taking these consumer concerns seriously, and has created a working group of experts, including representation from the Consumers Association of Canada, to look into the issue and make recommendations, and in the interim, is asking dairy farmers to consider alternatives to palm supplements.
This story serves as a reminder that the industrial food system is not set up for our benefit, and we often don’t really know what we’re eating. We can be quite sure that palm fat wasn’t chosen as a dairy cow feed additive with the health and welfare of consumers in mind, but rather because it was a cost-effective alternative. And whether or not its use in dairy feed is found to be safe and healthy is not the main issue here. As consumers, we have the right to know what is in our food and how it is produced. In this case, it was just the curiosity and persistence of Ms. Rosendaal that brought the story to light and alerted the public to what was going on.