Over the past few weeks and months, one peculiar food issue has been vexing Canadians: possible changes to their butter.
Foodies in Canada have claimed their butter has become paler in colour and is now harder to spread.
As Canadian cookbook author and food editor Julie van Rosendaal noted, 'something is up with our butter supply'.
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? pic.twitter.com/AblDzGiRQY
— Julie Van Rosendaal (@dinnerwithjulie) February 5, 2021
The controversy - dubbed, inevitably, 'Buttergate' - has become a source of fascination and concern for academics and officials, not to mention those using the butter.
So, what exactly is going on? While many have questioned whether there's a problem at all, a few possible culprits for the 'hard butter' have been identified.
One possibility in particular is receiving lots of attention - palm oil.
Dr Sylvain Charlebois - Professor and Senior Director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Canada - walked Moncrieff through the unfolding butter controversy.
He explained: “The main [changes] were smell, colour, and texture - a lot of people were commenting about the hardness of butter at room temperature.
“We’ve seen a change in recent years, but I think there’s been more change in the last year or so. One of our dairy boards in Canada - in British Columbia - published a memo back in October, acknowledging there were non-foaming issues with milk and some issues related to free fatty acids in the butter fat.
“Those were signs that perhaps something was not OK.”
Researchers started looking into the issue, and noticed that thousands of Canadians had noticed a change.
Dr Charlebois suggested the changes can actually be 'quite stunning' when different butter products are compared, even though he was 'skeptical' at first that there was an issue.
Spike in demand for butter
Demand for butter in Canada has increased by 26% over the last year, which has “likely put a lot of pressure” on farmers to produce more butter fat.
Dr Charlebois explained: “There are a few ways to produce more butter fat very quickly. You either add more cows lactating, or you actually change animal feed… one change you can make is by using supplements.
“One supplement that has attracted a lot of attention is palmitic acids given to [many] cows. It is legal… but has attracted a lot of attention. It’s a by-product of palm oil.
"We don’t know why butter has changed… [but] there are several hypotheses that have been presented, and one of them is related to palmitic acids.”
Dairy processors have asked for a ban on using palm supplements as feed for cows, and the Dairy Farmers of Canada lobby group has now told farmers to stop using the supplements while an investigation is undertaken.
Dr Charlebois said the situation comes as a lot of consumers work to avoid buying products which have palm oil in them.
However, the current situation means it could be ending up in butter - as it’s fed to the cows - but not being labelled on the products themselves.
He said this points to a 'huge disconnect' between animal science and food science, where there's no clarity on how changes to farming practices are impacting the quality of products being sold.