In early 2021, Canadians were complaining on social media about the firmness of their butter. It seemed far less spreadable at room temperature. Was this perception or reality? And if it was real, why was it happening? Did it have anything to do with the palm oil-derived palmitic acid in cows’ feed? Scientists and the dairy industry were quick to explain the many reasons why the firmness of butter can vary widely. 

“Buttergate”

Palmitic acid occurs naturally in cow’s milk as well as human breast milk. It is also found in plants such as the oil palm seed.  

Dubbed “buttergate” by the media, consumers speculated that their butter was harder because dairy farmers were feeding greater amounts of palmitic acid to their cows to boost milk production and increase the fat content necessary to make butter. The higher fat content was causing firmer butter. 

Food scientists explain why butter firmness varies 

As reported by Canadian web-based news service CBC.ca, many factors contribute to butter’s firmness. The article quotes Martin Scanlon, the dean of the faculty of agricultural and food sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, who explained factors range from the use of robotic milking machines to processing the butter too quickly, as manufacturers rushed to meet increased demand during the pandemic. 

The same article quotes University of Guelph food scientist Alejandro Marangoni, who analyzed the butter fat content and firmness of 17 butter brands and found only a “weak correlation” between their palmitic acid content and firmness. 

Marangoni’s research prompted a panel discussion among Dairy at Guelph researchers on feeding fats, including palm-based feeds, to dairy cows. Panelists pointed out that fat is the most variable component of milk, and the percentage of milk that is fat can vary quite a bit. In addition to diet, they cited environment and the time of year as factors in milk fat content. 

A second Dairy at Guelph panel discussion revealed that supplementing cows’ diets with palm oil byproducts has been done for decades to give cows more energy during early lactation and to help them cope with heat stress during some parts of the year.    

So is buttergate real?

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Are people just now noticing that their butter is harder, or is this truly an issue sparked by opinion-gathering on social media? Speaking on behalf of his role at the Dairy Research Extension Consortium of Alberta, David Christensen, an emeritus professor at the University of Saskatchewan, told the CTV News, “The problem is nobody is actually measuring the hardness of butter.”

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