Some Canadians are finding butter harder than usual, resulting in an avalanche of social media controversy around #buttergate. (Brett Williams/The Observer)

Some Canadians are finding butter harder than usual, resulting in an avalanche of social media controversy around #buttergate. (Brett Williams/The Observer)

#Buttergate: Concerns around hard butter hit small B.C. towns and beyond

Canadians find their butter was getting harder, blame palm oil in part one of this series

Dairy farmer Julaine Treur buys 30 pounds of butter every time she goes to Costco. For her family of seven, it lasts about a month and a half before she’s out to buy more.

This winter, her butter was harder than it was in the summer — nothing out of the ordinary for a climate like Agassiz’s. But when food columnist Julie Van Rosendaal shared that she was finding butter firmer than usual, Treur took notice.

“That piqued my interest as a dairy farmer of course,” Treur said.

“I can’t say that (the butter has) been different than other years,” she added. “But from what I’ve heard, a lot of people have thought otherwise. So it’s definitely something that should be looked into.”

Van Rosendaal wasn’t the only one to notice butter was seeming more difficult to spread. Nova Scotia professor Sylvain Charlebois, in Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analysis Lab, also heard people complaining about hard butter.

“Frankly, I wasn’t convinced,” Charlebois said.

But more and more people seemed to be noticing that something was different about their butter. Then, in October 2020, the B.C. Milk Marketing Board put out a notice about non-foaming milk.

“That’s when alarm bells rang,” Charlebois said.

The October notice was directed at B.C. dairy farmers, telling them that some of the milk going out to processors wasn’t foaming properly — a big concern for shops selling drinks like lattes or cappuccinos. No foam, no sales.

RELATED: Cost concerns leading more java lovers to home brew over coffee shops: survey

Non-foaming milk is caused by a breakdown of the fat molecules in milk. Once they break down, the fat molecules turn into Free Fatty Acids, or FFAs.

There are many reasons why milk might have a high number of FFAs: cows that are milked too often can have higher levels of the acids, for example, or milk that has been too warm during storage.

Different types of feed can impact the FFAs, as can agitating the milk during milking or cooling.

Farmers were asked to keep an eye on their FFA levels. Charlebois read the report.

That was his “aha” moment.

He started calling different people in the dairy industry, mostly processors, to see what they were noticing in their products. He asked what they were finding in farm audits and other reports.

“There were lots of causes that were presented and discussed,” he said about the increase in FFAs.

“But the one that came up a lot is this whole issue of palmitic acids.”

Palmitic acids are a type of saturated Free Fatty Acid that is found naturally in milk, but also in things like palm oil. And palm oil, or rather the flaky supplement made from it, is often fed to Canadian dairy cows as part of their rations.

These supplements are a simple way to increase the fat content in milk and give the cows a boost of energy-rich food. But some of that increase in fat content is in saturated fats, which means that the butter made from it can be harder to melt.

“That’s why it was easy to connect the dots,” Charlebois said.

On Feb. 18, the agricultural news organization The Western Producer published an article with Charlebois’s findings and interviews with major dairy organizations: the Dairy Farmers of Canada and Lactanet, the dairy industry centre of excellence. Those spokespeople said their data didn’t find an increase in the proportion of palmitic acid in Canadian milk.

But then, on Feb. 20, Van Rosendaal published her story on the connection she found between palm oil and hard butter in The Globe and Mail. And #buttergate really got going.

Dozens of stories in publications from the CBC to the BBC and even the New York Times and NPR came out looking at the possible connection between palm oil and the dairy industry.

On social media, the conversation moved away from whether butter actually was harder and moved into concerns around whether dairy farmers should be feeding their cows palm fats at all.

Back in Agassiz, Farmhouse Natural Cheeses was seeing a local interest in #buttergate.

“We’ve had a lot of inquiries, especially in this past week about our butter, people just verifying that we don’t use the palm oil,” Dana Dinn, wholesale manager at Farmhouse, said.

Dinn has worked at Farmhouse Natural Cheeses for 10 years, and had never heard of the practice of feeding palm fats to cows with their feed. Farmhouse has their own herd, which they milk for their cheeses and butter, and those cows are fed solely on pasture grass in the summer, and a mixture of hay and grain in the winter.

“It’s all new to me, but I’m not surprised,” Dinn said.

“People are definitely becoming more aware of what they are putting into their bodies, and just all the environmental factors.”

Right now, there is no conclusive evidence that the use of palm fats have made butter harder — and there’s not a lot of evidence that butter is harder than it used to be, other than anecdotal reports.

But in response to consumer concerns, the Dairy Farmers of Canada announced on Feb. 19 that it will launch a working group to look into the science surrounding palm fats, palmitic acid and the dairy industry. They have also asked dairy farmers to temporarily look for alternatives to palm-based supplements.

RELATED: Directive based on ‘buttergate’ claims could cost dairy farmers, say experts

For Charlebois, the working group is a chance for the dairy industry to move towards more transparency for consumers.

“I think the reason why we went through buttergate is the shock of learning that palmitic acids were being used in dairy,” Charlebois said. “I don’t think Canadians were ready for that.

“The product characteristics at retail didn’t matter any more, it was more about what was going on at farms.”

Check out the Agassiz Harrison Observer next week to read the next part of this series, where we hear from Agassiz farmers about their use of palm fats, and why butterfat is what makes the dairy world go round.



news@ahobserver.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

AgassizDairy Farmers

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Sports broadcaster and 30-year high school football coach Farhan Lalji. (Image via farhanlalji.com)
Farhan Lalji chats about the new B.C. high school sports governance proposal

Lalji, a 30-year high school football coach, thinks the new proposal will be bad for student athletes

Surrey city Councillor Brenda Locke. (File photo)
Surrey councillor trying to get policing referendum on the table, again

‘I’m sending it back for clarification,’ mayor decides

(James Smith photo)
North Delta crime beat, week of April 5

A selection of property crimes submitted weekly by the Delta Police Department

(Delta Police Department photo)
South Delta crime beat, week of April 5

A selection of property crimes submitted weekly by the Delta Police Department

Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks about the province’s COVID-19 vaccine plans during a news conference at the legislature in Victoria. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Dr. Bonnie Henry says Surrey immunization targeted at neighbourhoods most at risk

‘What we’ve been looking at is the case rates by neighbourhood,’ provincial health officer says

Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: B.C. lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

Nick Warmerdam and his dog Diesel are inviting locals to check out the Lakeland Farm U-pick Flower Farm this spring. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
VIDEO & SLIDESHOW: Abbotsford’s Lakeland Flowers opens for spring

Tulip farm attraction opened on April 14, open to the public daily seven days a week

Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week file photo)
RCMP intercept vehicle fleeing with infant taken from Kamloops hospital

The baby was at the hospital receiving life-saving care

The female driver of this Jeep Grand Cherokee (right) was driving erratically with a young child inside on Highway 1 eastbound. After hitting a barrier and a parked car, she finally exited the highway at Yale Road West and came to a stop. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Video captures woman driving erratically with child after hitting barrier, car on Hwy 1 in Chilliwack

Smoke seen coming from SUV as it continues to travel eastbound of shoulder of highway

Former Pitt Meadows city councillor David Murray was convicted of sex assault, and is now being sued by the victim. (files)
Former Pitt Meadows city councillor sued for sex assault

David Murray was convicted in 2017 of sexually assaulting a teen 25 years earlier

Vancouver Police Const. Deepak Sood is under review by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. after making comments to a harm reduction advocate Sunday, April 11. (Screen grab)
VIDEO: Vancouver officer convicted of uttering threats under watchdog review again

Const. Deepak Sood was recorded Sunday saying ‘I’ll smack you’ and ‘go back to selling drugs’ to a harm reduction advocate

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate persists, 1,005 new cases Friday

Hospitalization up to 425, six more virus-related deaths

Premier John Horgan receives a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the pharmacy in James Bay Thrifty’s Foods in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. Premier John Horgan gets AstraZeneca shot, encourages others

27% of residents in B.C. have now been vaccinated against COVID-19

The Nautical Dog Cafe at Skaha marina is getting its patio ready in hopes Mother Nature will provide where provincial restrictions have taken away indoor dining. (Facebook)
‘A lot of instability’: B.C. restaurants in layoff limbo

As COVID-19 cases stay high, restaurants in British Columbia are closed to indoor dining

Most Read