Social media has been churning with frustration in recent weeks amid the dawning realization that one of the most popular dairy products in the world has gotten worse at spreading the love.
Canadians are reporting that their butter — a cooking staple and essential ingredient in countless kitchen concoctions — is harder than it used to be. Even at room temperature, the once compliant condiment is now as just as likely to tear a hole in your bread as fill the one in your stomach.
“Many Atlantic Canadians have noted butter is harder,” Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab said, according to CTV. “This has put the dairy sector on the defensive, because it’s obvious something is going on. 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.”
After an investigation by Le Journal de Montreal reported some farmers have started to add palm oil to their cow feed because an increase in animal weight and butterfat content improves their bottom line, the Dairy Farmers of Canada released a statement saying the move was not unusual. “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,” they said.
“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.”
But more importantly then the fact that everyone else is doing it — is it good for us?
What is palm oil?
A type of edible vegetable oil, palm oil is made by squeezing the fruit of palm oil trees or by crushing the kernel at the centre of the fruit, according to the WWF. Although the trees are native to Africa, they were heavily exported to southeast Asia 100 years ago to the point that Malaysia and Indonesia now provide over 85 per cent of the global supply. The versatile vegetable oil has made its way into almost half of all packaged products on supermarket shelves, including doughnuts, chocolate, shampoo, lipstick and even Nutella.
Why is it so widely used?
Palm oil possesses several important qualities that have made it an essential ingredient in today’s fast-paced society. It is semi-solid at room temperature, making it (theoretically) ideal for spreadable products and it resists oxidization, meaning it can stay on store shelves longer. It is also odourless and colourless, so it doesn’t change the way food looks or smells, and it adds that familiar crispy texture to deep-fried foods.
Is it good for you?
Palm oil is often described as a healthier option because it does not contain any trans fats, but it still possesses high levels of saturated fats, meaning it can boost bad cholesterol and raise the risk of heart disease. While healthier than some other oils, olive oil and canola oil are better options. Many studies exploring the issue have been either been split on the health implications or dogged by concerns the industry may have exerted influence on the findings. “The contested nature of the evidence suggests the need for independent, comprehensive studies of the health impact of palm oil consumption,” the World Health Organization said.
Is it good for the planet?
Not particularly. Demand for olive oil has led to the destruction of some of the planet’s most biodiverse forests and ruined the habitats of endangered species such as the pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino. The conversion of carbon-rich soil also contributes to climate change by pouring millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It should be noted, however, that producing palm oil requires far less land and uses fewer pesticides than some other vegetable oil options.
Back in Canada, Charlebois was less concerned about what palm oil was doing to butter than what the industry may be doing to consumers. “This points to a deep-rooted problem in Canada,” he said. “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. 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.”
Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca
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