Is your butter harder? Researcher finds 'strong correlation' between firmness and palmitic acid content
TORONTO -- The furor over “Buttergate” has produced extensive speculation, food industry criticism, and tweeting over the issue of firmer butter and the possible role of palm oil in its apparently altered consistency. Now, a few months into the scandal, researchers are beginning to firm up some answers.
Buttergate went viral in February after Calgary food blogger Julie Van Rosendaal began questioning whether and why butter had become firmer at room temperature, with speculation quickly turning to palm fat supplements in livestock feed.
In an ongoing study that to date has examined about 50 different butters from across the country, University of Guelph professor and Canada Research Chair Alejandro Marangoni looked at the hardness of various butters and then compared it with the palm oil-derived palmitic acid content of each brand.
“We went out there and we did a survey of butter samples in the marketplace from Alberta to Nova Scotia and we found a relationship between the hardness of the butter and the content of palmitic acid,” he told CTVnews.ca in an interview.
However, while more palmitic acid may equal harder butter, that doesn’t slam the door on Buttergate. While Marangoni’s research has found so far that most of the difference in hardness between various butters can be explained by palmitic acid levels, what’s missing is a detailed tally of yearly change in palmitic acid content and conclusive evidence of butter’s changing hardness over the years.
This means the study is somewhat inconclusive. However, the findings do point to a general increase in palmitic acid content over the years as the dairy industry has increasingly embraced palm products as an economical fat supplement for cows.
For a historical perspective, Marangoni looked at Health Canada guidelines last updated in 2015 that considered 26 per cent to be a normal level for palmitic acid. In the study of recent samples, he found levels averaging around 35 per cent and some nearing 40 per cent.
Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm, which grows in tropical climates. It has become widely used because of its plentiful yields. However, the industry is heavily criticized because of the toll palm oil plantations take on forests and wildlife.
“The thing is that palmitic acid supplements have been given to cows now for a number of years, so it seems a little weird that people have noticed right now. But the fact remains that there's a strong correlation between the amount of palmitic acid and the hardness of the butter,” Marangoni said “What we're just missing is hard data on the hardness that would then be correlated to give a conclusive answer.“
Marangoni said he plans to study another 20 or so butter brands and then publish his research at some point.