Butter Isn't Melting at Room Temperature in Canada. Should Americans Be Worried?

An increase in saturated fats may be behind reports that butter has become harder to spread in Canada.

It is unclear whether the phenomenon—dubbed "Buttergate"—is present in the U.S. But the Dairy Farmers of Canada lobby group said the harder butter was caused by an increase in palm oil fed to cows, a practice also seen on U.S. farms.

In a piece for CTV News in Montreal, Professor Sylvain Charlebois from the agri-food analytics lab at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia said a rise in the amount of palm oil added to cow feed was "the most plausible reason."

Charlebois' article, published on Tuesday, said the country's dairy industry had come under pressure to produce more dairy fat in 2020, as Canadians turned to home cooking during the pandemic.

One way to increase production, he explained, is to add palm oil—an energy supplement—into dairy cows' diet. As a result, the cows produce milk that is higher in saturated fats than before, which has a side effect of increasing the melting point of butter.

Dairy Farmers of Canada said "no undesirable effects" had been identified from the use of palm oil in Canada or abroad.

However, Charlebois linked the supplement to lower-quality dairy during an interview this week on CBC radio show As It Happens.

He said the increase in palm oil fat had been happening for at least two years, adding: "And last year, we were short of butter fat because we were all home, cooking away."

Charlebois said the supplement was legal, but its use fell short of what Canadians might expect in terms of butter quality since "we do pay a lot more for dairy products on average than, say, the Americans or other places around the world."

A number of studies have found that eating large amounts of saturated fats can affect health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website: "Eating foods low in saturated fats and high in fiber and increasing access to low-sodium foods, along with regular physical activity, can help prevent high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure."

Dairy Farmers of Canada said the increase in the "palmitic fatty acid profile of dairy fat" caused by palm oil supplements was "less than 3 percent."

According to a study published in the journal Nature in December 2020, palm oil is a threat to 321 species —"more than for other oil crops." But the study led by Professor Erik Meijaard also stated that "better information was needed for all oil crops" on their environmental impact.

Charlebois told CBC that switching to organic butter would solve the issue of hardness, while some social media users recommended plant-based alternatives instead.

Butter on bread
A stock photo shows butter being spread onto bread. Canadians have reported butter has become harder to spread. It is thought that palm oil is the cause. sfe-co2/iStock