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The pandemic, hard butter & sunflowers – huh?

As we spend more time indoors, we become more in tune with our surroundings and see things that might otherwise go unnoticed.

I am not a baker and don’t want to be one, but have you noticed the butter you leave on your counter isn’t as soft as it used to be? I always presumed it had to do with ambient temperatures in the house, but it seems that’s not the case. It has to do with the pandemic palm oil, cow feed and saturated fat substitutions. Better read on to see what I’m talking about.

Studies out of the University of Guelph are trying to confirm butter has changed, why this is happening and if it’s a good thing or not. Typically, our butter is made from cow’s milk, which contains saturated fatty acids. Canadian regulations require butter must contain at least 80 percent butterfat (also known as milk fat). To meet this requirement, you need a specific type of feed that can help produce the desired output, and that means farmers generally have to add supplements to the feed, which is primarily produced abroad. Now, toss in the fact usage of butter increased by 12.4 percent in 2020, as a direct result of the increased interest in baking during this pandemic. At the same time, the number of milking cows declined in Canada due to reduced demand for milk, and you find enhanced animal feed supplements needed to be introduced to meet the high demand for butter. Okay, so how does palm oil factor in?

Well, it turns out palm oil yields high volumes of fats. Palm oil trees produce two useful products, palm oil from the palm fruit and palm kernel oil from its seed. To supplement the feed our cows get and to increase milk fat content and production from each cow, the farmers often choose supplements that contain palm oil derivatives that are cheap and readily available.

But in so doing, some of the characteristics of the palm oil derivatives, such as palmitic acid, come through. Thirty-two percent of the palmitic acid may persist in the milk’s fatty acid composition, tending to alter the resulting milk’s saturated fatty acid profiles, producing butter that has a different texture and no longer readily melts at room temperature.

Palm-kernel oil contains about 82 percent saturated fats, which may have a darker side. Palmitic oil naturally occurs in milk, meat, cheese and butter at lower concentrations. However, according to the World Health Organization, our coronary health may be negatively influenced by higher doses of palmitic acid from palm oil sources, our coronary health may be negatively influenced, according to the World Health Organization!

In the recent past, we shied away from almost all types of fats, but now nutritionists are indicating some fats are good, and the global demand is rising. So we go full circle. We need to produce more fat from fewer cows and hence the influx of palm oil-based feed supplements to meet the demand. It is reported 50 to 90 percent of Canadian farmers now use some form of palm oil supplement in their feed.

Unfortunately, these aren’t just any old palms, they are a specific type that grow in tropical regions. These plantations result in vast swaths of tropical rainforests being cut down, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, to allow massive palm oil plantations to prosper! This results in the demise of many species of animals (e.g. Sumatran Rhinos and Orangutans), as this monoculture is unsuitable habitat for most tropical rainforest species.

Now is there a good side to palm oil? I hate to admit it, but maybe if we don’t use palm oil or another option isn’t readily available, we need more cows to produce more milk. Cows poop and produce methane gas, and then the climate is negatively impacted. Wow!?

One solution is to use other sources of protein such as soybeans, flax, canola or sunflower oils. Each has its pros and cons. Time will tell if these offset the demands and solve the problem. Gotta run now; I have to go melt some butter!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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