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Why is Canadian butter not softening? 'Buttergate' controversy goes viral

During the pandemic, Canadians began to notice something odd about their butter: It wouldn't soften at room temperature.
Butter dish on color background
Food writer Julie Van Rosendaal hypothesized there was a change to the fatty acid profile that caused the butter to remain firm at room temperature.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Over the last year, people have been spending more time in the kitchen between working from home, quarantining and not going out to eat. Demand for kitchen staples like dairy have increased in many areas and food prices continue to rise. But what happens when the butter won't soften for all those baking recipes you've yet to tackle?

That's what many Canadians have been wondering in viral posts about the perplexing texture of butter since the pandemic started.

Some are calling it 'buttergate.'

"As a recipe writer, I had been noticing for awhile that butter was not soft enough at room temperature to start beating cookie dough, and was often firm enough at room temperature to use in pastry," Julie Van Rosendaal, the Canada-based food journalist and best-selling cookbook author who sparked the viral conversation, told TODAY Food.

Van Rosendaal said she began receiving inquiries on her Twitter about the change in butter texture in spring 2020 but didn't realize how widespread the issue was until posting about it this month.

"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? Watery? Rubbery?" she tweeted on Feb. 5.

According to Van Rosendaal, hundreds of people corroborated on Twitter on Instagram and at least 1,000 on Facebook, which indicated the difference in texture was not limited to one brand or region and had remained an issue throughout different seasons.

"I picked up a bunch of butters to test on my countertop — grocery store butter, European-style butter, organic and grass-fed butters. Most stayed predictably firm, with one Canadian grass-fed brand, some pricey imported French butter and a batch of butter I made myself using organic cream remaining noticeably softer than the others," Van Rosendaal told TODAY.

Cookbook author and food journalist Julie Van Rosendaal tested the melting points of many different butters and found most didn't soften at room temperature.
Cookbook author and food journalist Julie Van Rosendaal tested the melting points of many different butters and found most didn't soften at room temperature.Courtesy Julie Van Rosendaal

As for the flavor, the food expert said every different variety of butter stayed true to its typical flavor profile. So what was causing the different consistencies?

Van Rosendaal hypothesized there was a change to the fatty acid profile that caused the butter to remain firm at room temperature. Given supply chain disruptions and increased demand for dairy, she began researching palm fats in livestock feed and found how palm oil-based supplements are used by dairy farmers "to boost output and increase the fat content of the resulting milk."

According to the Dairy Research and Extension Consortium of Alberta, palm oil and palmitic acid (refined palm oils commonly used in cooking oils, industrial lubricants, soaps, biofuels, cosmetics, margarine and cow feed), are "widely used" to increase milk fat production and milk yield. The palmitic acid content of milk fat can range from 25% to 38%.

"Because of its high melting point it will increase the melting point of butter and affect the texture of cheese. It has been suggested that more than 32% palmitic acid in milk fatty acids may result in noticeable changes in butter and cheese characteristics," a recent report from DRECA read.

An increase in the percentage of palmitic acid to produce more milk to meet demand would confirm Van Rosendaal's research that higher levels would make butter less likely to soften at room temperature.

Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Canada's Dalhousie University, confirmed Van Rosendaal's theory and said that while the increased use of palmitic acid is legal, some agriculture ministers throughout Canada's provinces did not realize it was legal.

"It is clearly creating a discomfort not only with consumers, but within the dairy community," Charlebois told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The food researcher is advising Canadian farmers to limit the use, though it's up to the provinces to manage the legal percentage of palmitic acid that can be used, or whether they want farmers to use it all (though not using it would likely drive consumer prices up). According to Charlebois, 22% of farmers in Quebec use palmitic acid while 90% of farmers in Alberta use the supplement to increase butterfat content in milk for low costs.

TODAY reached out to the National Milk Producers Federation to see whether the U.S. also allows palmitic acid supplements to increase milk supply in lactating cows. According to Jamie Jonker, its vice president for sustainability and scientific affairs, it is.

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“Feeding byproducts from other parts of food production to dairy cattle, which recycles ingredients that may otherwise be thrown away, has been a staple of the U.S. dairy industry for decades," he told TODAY. "Palm oil byproducts fed to dairy cattle in small amounts has been among them."

A spokesperson for the NMPF told TODAY that the regulatory staff was not "aware" of a legal limit in the U.S., but were able to provide the industry standard for how much is in dairy.

"The palmitic acid portion of the weight of total fatty acids in butter is roughly 30 percent. That’s a decades-old industry standard that’s remained consistent throughout the pandemic," he told TODAY, adding how palmitic acid is not just from the palm but can also be produced in other plants and organisms at low levels. For example, the amount in human breast milk averages 20 to 25%.

Jonker also confirmed there has not been a "recent change in use of palm oil byproducts that would cause a discernible difference in butter 'hardness' at room temperature," which aligns with the DRECA's report 32% or more alters the consistency.

So at least for now, Americans' butter should be cookie batter-ready.