A piece of butter curls on top of a flat of butter. (Madlen / shutterstock.com)

Baking has become a pandemic hobby for many over the last year and some have recently raised concerns over the texture and consistency of Canadian butter, leading to speculation that palm oil is being added to cow feed to change the composition.

Butter is typically delicately smooth, spreadable and should be able to melt over the warm surface of food, but some Canadians claim that even when left at room temperature their butter isn’t as soft as it once was.

“Nobody knows for sure, but there is speculation that perhaps animal feed given to cows has changed the composition of butterfat that manufacturers are using in dairy products,” Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab told CTV News by phone Thursday.

In December, Charlebois tweeted: “Is it me or is #butter much harder now at room temperature?” Since then, he’s received dozens of responses from Canadians across the country who have noticed a change.

Is it me or is #butter much harder now at room temperature?

— The Food Professor (@FoodProfessor) December 29, 2020

On Feb. 11, the advocacy group Dairy Farmers of Canada released a statement saying: “There has been no recent data to show that the consistency of butter has changed, and we are not aware of any significant changes in dairy production or processing. Our sector is working with experts to further assess these reports.”

It was later revealed in an investigation by Le Journal de Montreal that some dairy farmers have started to mix palm oil with the feed that is given to cows in order to increase its weight and butterfat content to make more profit.

“The vast majority of small producers prefer not to use it because they wonder about the quality of the milk, which could be altered,” Marie-Josée Renaud, coordinator of the Union Paysanne, told the Journal.

Dairy Farmers of Canada released a new statement on Feb. 16 following the Journal’s report about the “open secret” within the industry, saying that it was “aware of the recent reports regarding fat supplementation in the dairy sector.”

“Palm products, including those derived from palm oil, are sometimes added to dairy cows’ rations in limited amounts to increase the energy density of cow diets if needed,” the group explained.

“Dairy farmers in other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia also use this supplement. They can help provide energy to cows and no undesirable effects have been identified arising from its use in cows’ feed rations.”

Despite this reassurance, some consumers and food experts like Charlebois are concerned about the increase in saturated fat content linked to the palmitic acid found in palm oil.

“When the saturated fat content of butter fat increases the melting point of butter will also increase, which is why butter remains hard at room temperature,” Charlebois explained.

Dairy Farmers of Canada says the “Palmitic acid, which is different from palm fat, is a naturally occurring part of the fat of many plants and animals in various levels.”

“When supplements of palm fats are given to cows in Canada, the amount typically provided in their feed is small, and has a very limited impact on the palmitic fatty acid profile of their milk,” the group says. “It is estimated that the increase in the palmitic fatty acid profile of dairy fat linked to this feeding practice is less than [three per cent]."

For Charlebois the problem isn’t just a matter of stiff butter, but a break in a social contract between consumers and regulators.

“This points to a deep-rooted problem in Canada,” Charlebois says. “There is a disconnect between animal science, what we feed cows, and food science, the quality of a product at retail.”

“Palm oil is not unusual to find in food, but dairy is a bit different,” Charlebois added. “Dairy operates under a rigid government system with significantly high standards in Canada. And when people think about palm oil they don't necessarily think of high standards.”

While there is no data to assess how many dairy farms use palm oil in their feed, regulators and food experts continue to reassure Canadians that the use of palm oil, from a feed perspective, is safe.