It started in February 2021 when Canadian cookbook author Julie Van Rosendaal posed on Twitter: “Something is up with our butter supply, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it. Have you noticed it’s no longer soft at room temperature? “
She certainly struck a chord with her followers who had also noticed the hardening trend and were suspicious about its cause. They tweeted about a coverup by the dairy industry and christened it “Buttergate”. Media outlets around the world picked up the story.
Rosendaal’s own reporting, published in the Canadian Globe and Mail on February 20th, 2021, suggested the cause was a change in the types of fat in the butter. The harder butter could be due to the increasingly common practice of adding palm oil, a saturated fat that is hard at room temperatures, to the feed of the lactating cows.
A year later after some careful analysis Alejandro Marangoni and his co-authors from the University of Guelph have the data prove or disprove this hypothesis. Their paper is published in the May 2022 edition of Food Chemistry.
Butter has always changed with seasons, and with the diet of the cows.
The physical properties of butter depends on the cows diet. Farmers and homesteaders look forward to softer, yellower, butter in the spring when their cows return to eating fresh grass. Winter butter, from cows fed on hay, is harder and pale.
The English tradition of soft sponge cakes (like Mary Berry’s Summer party gâteau) in the summer, and crisp biscuits such as gingernuts in the winter may have developed because of the seasonal differences in butter.
A study by Bogusław Staniewski and co-authors from the University of Warmia and Mazury in Poland in 2021 demonstrated the correlation between those seasonal changes and the type of fat in the butter. Harder butter had more saturated fats.
Processing matters too.
Cream is held at cool temperatures at the start of the butter making process. This allows fat molecules in the cream to aggregate and start to crystalize. The microstructure that creates the melting behavior and mouth feel that we love in the final butter develops slowly. More rapid cooling creates a large quantity of small crystals that eventually leads to harder, grainy, butter. But in 2020 and 2021 butter manufacturers had no time.
Everyone was baking at home during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Land O’Lakes butter sales increased 12%. Butter prices rose by up to 40% and the press warned of shortages. The pressure was on to speed up the process and produce more butter – and a faster process leads to harder butter.
But now we know – Julie Van Rosendaal’s butter was getting harder, and the harder butter did have increased amounts of palmitic acid (a major component of palm oil)
Marangoni’s research reveals a statistically significant correlation between the firmness of butter sourced from grocery stores across Canada in 2021 and amount of one specific type of fatty acid (a component of fat). The harder butter had more palmitic acid. This fatty acid has always been a part of the mix in butter, but it is makes up more than 40% of the fat in palm oil. The levels were significantly higher than previously reported.
In recent years adding palm oil to cows feed has become common practice in the dairy industry. Lactation requires a lot of energy and fat can provide that energy. More fat provides more energy, and leads to more milk. Palm oil is particular effective.
But it was not immediately obvious that feeding cows high melting point oil would lead to harder butter. The food that you (or a cow) eat is broken down into its component parts during digestion. The parts are reassembled into different materials in your cells, or broken down to release energy. The old adage “you are what you eat” should perhaps be rephrased “you are bits of what you eat”. Careful research has now made that link.
What have we learned from Buttergate?
One thing that is abundantly clear is the need for more transparency and clearer communication from the dairy industry. Consumers who were avoiding products including palm oil because of ethical and environmental concerns were, perhaps quite reasonably, upset to discover they had been supporting its production through their purchase of butter. There are also valid health concerns. We are advised to limit our intake of saturated fats. Feeding cows with palm oil creates a butter that is higher in saturated fat. The reluctance of the dairy industry to share information, even when consumers were clearly asking for it, lead to accusations of coverup and to “buttergate”.
There is pressure to prohibit palm oil supplements for cows if their butter is promoted as “grass fed”. This is already the case for some standards, such as those from the Dairy Farmers of Ontario).
Do you want softer butter?
Softer butter is created when manufactures take time. And when they use milk from truly grass-fed cows (pasture grazed in the summer months). That comes with a higher price-tag. Is it worth it? Consumers will be equipped make that choice if they have better labeling and clearer information .
In some situations you might prefer the harder materials – yes it contains more saturated fat – and there are valid concerns about palm oil production – but it will make your pie crust crisper and improve the snap of your ginger snaps!