Scientists, scholars, dairy industry and others have responded publicly to Canada’s “buttergate”:  anecdotal comments circulating on social media that the country’s butter had become firmer than usual at room temperature. 

While some armchair social media detectives blamed the perceived firmness on small amounts of palm oil-derived palmitic acid used in dairy feed, those closer to the debate chimed in with their facts and expert observations. 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.  

The theory: Dairy farmers were feeding greater quantities 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. But was this true? 

Food scientists and the dairy industry respond

One expert who tried to validate that theory was University of Guelph food scientist Alejandro Marangoni. As reported by Canadian web-based news service CBC.ca, he analyzed the butter fat content and firmness of 17 butter brands and found only a “weak correlation” between their palmitic acid content and firmness. 

This 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.    

How butter is processed may also be a factor in its hardness 

The CBC report quotes Martin Scanlon, the dean of the faculty of agricultural and food sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, who cited several other factors that might also contribute to butter’s firmness, ranging from the use of robotic milking machines to processing the butter too quickly, as manufacturers rushed to meet increased demand during the pandemic. 

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.”