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

Bulldogs forward Stephen Castagna flips the puck into the Clippers zone during a game on Oct. 24. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
BCHL game postponed due to ‘potential positive’ COVID-19 test

Nanaimo Clippers team suspends activities, players isolating pending further test results

A Viking Air Twin Otter takes off midway down the runway at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport on Jan. 13, 2021 during a series of training flights. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
New plan recognizes industrial strengths of Alberni Valley airport

Strategic plan identifies AVRA as Vancouver Island’s premier industrial airport

A piece of artwork from Port Alberni artist Jim Sears. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)
ARTS AROUND: Port Alberni artist shares watercolour images of the coast

Rollin Art Centre holding a garden clean-up on April 18

The Alberni Golf Club is located on Cherry Creek Road. FILE PHOTO
ALBERNI GOLF: Parhar picks up win in Partner with a Pro

Next Sunday, April 18 is a two man best ball

Two of the heritage buildings from McLean Mill National Historic Site that have been restored at the Port Alberni tourist attraction. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
McLean Mill application breaks new ground for ALC

Process just another ‘misstep’ by city, says critic

Rendering of the community and cultural centre planned to be built on the site of the former residential school building in Lower Post. (Screenshot/Province of BC YouTube channel)
Lower Post residential school building to be demolished, replaced with cultural centre

Project to be funded by federal and provincial governments, Daylu Dena Council

Vancouver police say eight people were arrested Wednesday after anti-pipeline protesters blocked off both the entrances and exits to two buildings in the downtown core. (Instagram/Qtcatspictureclub)
8 people arrested after anti-pipeline protestors chain themselves to Vancouver buildings

Cst. Tania Visintin said demonstrators caused ‘a serious safety hazard’ downtown for hours Wednesday

Jamie Coutts recorded a man following her around downtown Vancouver for a half-hour on Wednesday, March 18. (Instagram screenshot/Iammjammbamm)
Man charged in alleged high-profile Vancouver stalking case that went viral online

Man faces five other charges including criminal harassment and assault with a weapon

A sea lion swims past the window of an empty viewing area Vancouver Aquarium is pictured Thursday, September 10, 2020. The Vancouver Aquarium has had to close its doors to the public due to the lack of visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
U.S.-based theme park company buys Vancouver Aquarium

Aquarium had to shut its doors in September due to COVID pandemic

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Legendary broadcaster Bernie Pascall is among in the Class of 2021 to be inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. (PQB News file photo)
Island broadcasting legend Bernie Pascall named to Canadian Football Hall of Fame

Pascall named by Football Reporters of Canada as inductee in the 2021 class in the media category

A Sooke man died Tuesday afternoon after his car left the roadway in 7500-block of West Coast Road around 1:30 p.m. and hit a tree. (Black Press Media file photo)
Sooke man dies when car slams into tree

The man’s SUV left the roadway and struck a tree

Most Read