Why are people squeezing butter?

(RealAgriculture/2021)

The theories range from “evil” American milk making its way into Canada, to mistreatment of cows or mysterious supplements fed to cows, to enzyme activity; but any sort of factual explanation for why some Canadians are saying butter has either changed consistency at room temperature or changed in flavour since August 2020 remains a mystery.

Fuelled by a Facebook post on Julie van Rosendaal’s “Dinner with Julie” Facebook page that has received hundreds of comments, and a Twitter poll posted by Dr. Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University, some Canadians are saying they’ve noticed a difference in the consistency and flavour of butter.

It’s no secret that Charlebois is a critic of Canada’s supply-managed dairy sector, and as the above tweets suggest, there’s more than a little disdain expressed over this “manufactured” controversy. So much so that yes, one person even went to the store to buy butter and test its firmness at room temp.

To get to the bottom of what, if anything, is actually going on, I reached out to the Dairy Processors Association of Canada (DPAC). A spokesperson there said that they were aware of the concerns being raised on social media on the speculation of what might be happening. After speaking with its members, DPAC says: “There have been no changes to the way in which butter is produced in Canada and the ingredients are the same as they have always been.”

In Canada, butter is regulated to contain at least 80 per cent milk fat. The only accepted ingredients, DPAC says, are cream and salt. “These are standardized in Canada by regulations which require butter to contain at least 80 per cent milk fat. Canadian-made butter on retail shelves is made only with Canadian cream,” the organization says.

Some have pointed out that the August 2020 date happens to coincide with the launch of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement last summer that granted more access of Canada’s dairy market to the U.S.

Charlebois himself is alluding to some sort of report being released in the coming days that further delves into the issue of butter quality. There is speculation that it may have something to do with the findings of an October 2020 B.C. Dairy report regarding milk that wouldn’t foam properly when used for specialty coffees.

According to Daniel Lefebvre, chief operations officer at Lactanet and an expert in cow nutrition and milk composition, butter’s consistency has to do with palmitic acid.

“The naturally dominant type of saturated fat in butter is called ‘palmitic acid.’ It is normal for the proportion of palmitic acid to fluctuate within an expected range as a result of seasonal and regional variations in a cow’s diet. This fluctuation can influence the properties of the milk fat, which can affect the temperature at which butter will melt. Our data from routine analyses of the fatty acid profile in milk do not indicate any increase in the proportion of palmitic acid in the past year beyond what would normally be expected,” he says.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada says that they are aware of the comments online, adding that “there are many different factors that can have subtle impacts on the taste, texture and the melting point of butter, including differences in a cow’s diet from one region to another or from one season to the next. Exact cow feed rations are determined at the farm level in consultation with animal nutrition experts and may impact the complexity of butter in various ways. ”

There has been no recent data to show that the consistency of butter has changed, DFC says, and the organization says it is not aware of any significant changes in dairy production or processing.

“Our sector is working with experts to further assess these reports,” says DFC.