Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University has touched off a news media stampede to report that butter seems to be harder these days.
He tweeted his personal opinion in December and got an immediate response, prompting his students to calculate that 53 per cent of those who responded agreed that butter is harder.
And then he speculated that it might be because farmers are feeding rations containing palm oil.
But that doesn’t seem to wash.
Alejandro Marangoni, a food science professor at University of Guelph, says while components of palm oil found in milk fat can affect the melting point of butter, there's no data to support "sensationalist" claims of a great hardening.
David Christensen, a professor emeritus of animal and poultry science at University of Saskatchewan, said Canadian farmers have used palmitic acid products to increase milk fat production for about two decades.
Christensen says if the consistency of butter has changed, it could be related to the palmitic acid content, or changes to the methods processors use to produce butter.
Dairy Farmers of Canada has a new working committee examining the use of palm oil supplements in cow feed; it said feeding palm oil doesn't raise health or safety concerns.
The media articles extend to the United States where Dr. Adam Lock of the extension department at the University of Michigan has prepared a long video describing the science of butterfat production and profiles and concludes that more research is required to determine whether palm oil in dairy rations makes a difference in the melting point of butter.
He said there are more than 400 fatty acids in the composition of butterfat and that there are variations by season, by the genetics of individual cows, by the stage of lactation and nutrition.
One of the surprising findings he presented is that cows managed to organic standards produce butterfat with a higher melting temperature – i.e. harder butter. But it’s not a big difference.
He said butter is 50 per cent solid at refrigeration temperature and about 20 per cent solid at room temperature, but depending on the temperature of the room.
He chuckled about the Canadian news media calling the hard butter issue “buttergate”. Former President Robert Nixon would, no doubt, wish that Watergate were so benign.
I guess buttergate is not going to die any time soon. It just keeps spreading, hard or not.