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Hard butter issue calls feed additive into question

Progressive Dairy Editor Karen Lee Published on 31 March 2021

It started with a few posts on social media questioning the characteristics of butter. In a matter of weeks, the topic gained international interest and a debate ensued on feeding palm-based supplements to dairy cows.

In early February, Calgary-based food writer Julie Van Rosendaal posted a picture of butter on her Twitter account @dinnerwithjulie and wrote: “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?”

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She also posted on Instagram and Facebook and received hundreds of responses.

The hardness factor did not seem to apply to all butter. A fair amount of people did not share the same observation and had no concerns with their butter. In addition, no one could pinpoint a specific brand or product.

Soon, the so-called “buttergate” garnered attention of international media outlets such as the BBC, The Today Show and the New York Times.

A lot of speculation emerged on the cause of the harder butter. Some people blamed winter, the colder weather and colder room temperatures.

Another theory was: Due to the pandemic and closures, lower-grade butter was diverted from food service outlets to retail stores.

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The reason that garnered the most attention was speculation into the use of palmitic acid supplements, a byproduct of palm oil, as a feed ingredient for dairy cows.

Palm oil is a widely used vegetable oil and can be found in cosmetics, pizza dough, soaps, margarine, chocolate, biofuels and breads. It is also a point of health and environmental concern for some consumers.

Palm oil is not an ingredient in butter, nor is it directly fed to cows. Instead, cows do what they do best by converting a waste or byproduct of palm oil processing into consumable products.

These palm-based supplements are approved for use by the FDA and have been fed to dairy cows for decades in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Palmitic acid supplements are an energy source in cows’ diets and improve fiber digestion and triglyceride synthesis. A standard amount fed is about 200 to 250 grams of the supplement (less than 1% of the cow’s diet).

Whether or not cows are fed these supplements, palmitic acid is one of the most prevalent fatty acids found in the milk they produce because the cow’s body can synthesize it on its own. The amount of palmitic acid in milk can fluctuate based on seasonal and regional variations, but Canada’s milk recording agency has seen nothing out of the normal range.

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“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,” explains Daniel Lefebvre, chief operations officer at Lactanet.

There is no evidence that feeding these supplements have altered the structure of butter, and nothing more than anecdotal evidence exists to suggest butter has changed.

Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC), the national policy, lobbying and promotional organization representing Canadian dairy producers, maintains all milk produced in Canada is nutritious and safe to consume. However, out of respect for consumer concern, DFC announced the formation of a working group comprised of stakeholders and experts to assess current literature and gaps in data, and look into issues that have been raised by consumers.

The working group includes prominent academics and experts, with specializations in areas such as dairy nutrition, animal health, sustainability, food science and human nutrition. Consumers, dairy processors and farm-level experts are also included.

“We have a great team assembled with a lot of expertise in different areas,” reports Lefebvre after the group’s initial meeting on March 5.

Lefebvre will serve as chair of the working group, which is planning to review scientific literature as it relates to feeding palm fat supplements to cows, milk composition, milk handling and processing, and health and safety of supplements.

“There are a number of areas we want to look at,” Lefebvre says.

In addition to the scientific review, they want to confirm if there have been changes in butter characteristics by working with milk processors to understand how the different aspects of milk handling and processing techniques could impact butter consistency.

“We want to reach out to manufacturers to see if anything has changed,” he says. They will inquire about assessments used to monitor butter properties and what data is kept, noting changes over time.

While the group of experts seeks fact-based explanations, DFC has asked Canadian dairy farmers to consider alternatives to palm supplements. A few provincial milk organizations followed suit and issued their own public statements asking producers not to feed it.

Several dairy cattle nutritionists and food scientists raised their concerns on the lack of scientific merit behind the entire discussion. Some even challenged the directive from DFC asking producers to seek alternative options to palm-based supplements, as they are an unlikely culprit to an unknown problem.

Michigan State University professor Adam Lock has been researching palmitic acid and different fatty acid blends for several years and says the subject is too complex to pin on one feed ingredient.

“Milkfat is probably the most diverse liquid matrix you’ll find anywhere in nature because there have been over 400 different fatty acids identified in milk,” Lock explains in a YouTube briefing on the topic.

“Many factors affect milk composition: genetics of the cow, stage of lactation, age, health, nutrition of the cow … different environments. We know there’s a lot of seasonality around milk composition,” he says.

With data to verify the impact of each of these factors, Lock states, “Some of these things need to be taken into account much more so than a single feed ingredient.”

Daniel Scothorn, a nutritionist and coach at Scothorn Nutrition, says this tool in the nutrition toolbox will be hard to replace.

“There are no suitable alternatives that specifically provide high amounts of palmitic acid,” Scothorn says. “Plant-based oils, such as canola, corn and soy, are not commonly distilled into palmitic acid due to the cost of setting up oleochemical plants and the fact they would have to compete with palm-sourced C16, so we will not see any economical alternatives.”

He adds, “Without palmitic acid, we will lose the benefits associated with it, such as its impact on improving triglyceride formation at the mammary gland and general improvements in whole diet fat and organic matter digestibility.”

Lefebvre defended the decision by DFC in the near term, noting a fault in consumer trust could do greater harm to the industry. end mark

PHOTO: Getty images.

Karen Lee
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