Frequently asked questions about butter, palm fat, and fat supplementation for dairy cows

Below is a compilation of Q&As on the use of fat supplementation in cow feed

Consumers have asked us many questions in recent weeks about the hardness and melting point of butter. Apart from reports on social media, there has been no recent data to show that the consistency of butter has changed in the first place, but we are looking to find out further information.

There are many different factors at all steps of the butter-making process that can have subtle impacts on the taste, texture and melting point of butter.

At the farm level, for example, differences in a cow’s diet from one region to another or from one season to the next, the breed of the cow or stage of lactation all influence the profile of the milk, including the fat and protein content.

Exact cow feed rations are determined at the farm level in consultation with animal nutrition experts and based on the cow’s nutritional needs.

Nevertheless, the dairy sector has heard consumers’ concerns loud and clear, and is taking action by convening a group of experts to look into the issues raised.

All milk produced in Canada is as safe as ever to consume and is subject to Canada’s robust health and safety standards. Dairy farmers work every day to produce milk according to some of the most rigorous standards and they are committed to continuing to exceed consumers’ expectations.

Here you will find answers to some of the most common questions we’ve been asked.

Is butter produced in Canada getting harder? Is it because farmers are using palm oil?

Apart from anecdotal reports on social media, there has been no scientific data to show that the consistency of butter has changed recently.

We cannot identify anything specific that has changed in milk production or processing that could have an impact on the characteristics of butter. However, as we noted above, there are many different factors at all steps of the butter-making process that can have subtle impacts on the taste, texture and melting point of butter. A working group of experts has been formed to assess consumers’ concerns from a science-based perspective. The working group includes leading academics and experts, as well as industry and consumer representatives. They are looking to determine if there have been any changes in the characteristics of milk and butter, and if so, what factors may have contributed. As the experts on the working group specialize in a number of relevant areas, the working group will examine this issue carefully from a number of different perspectives from farm to table.

It is essential that decisions be made on a factual basis and that science guide our sector. However, we asked dairy farmers to consider alternative feeding strategies to meet their cows’ nutritional needs while the group looks into the matter further.

Is there palm oil in butter in Canada? Is palm oil added to butter or dairy products?

No, palm oil is never added to butter or milk.

Some farms use palm fat as nutritional supplements to cows’ rations. Palm fat is different from palm oil:   it is from the same plant, but it is a by-product extracted from the residue after palm oil is used in other foods and consumer goods. This by-product might otherwise be simply discarded.

Are palm oil, palm fat and palmitic acid the same thing?

Palmitic acid is one of the most common fatty acids found in animals, plants and microorganisms – including grass!

Palm fat and palm oil are both products of the oil palm tree. Palm fat is a by-product extracted from the residue of palm oil after it is used in other foods and consumer goods, which might otherwise be discarded.

There are many types of fats (called fatty acids) that appear in milk. The palmitic acid is a type of fat, which is naturally occurring in several plants and animals, in various levels. For example, palmitic acid represents 11% of the fat in olive oil and naturally makes up about one third of the fat in milk, whether or not supplements are used. It is also naturally occurring in human milk.

Do Canadian dairy farmers feed their cows palm oil or palm-based products?

Some farms use palm fat as nutritional supplements to cows’ rations. When palm fat is used as a supplement in cow feed, it is provided in a very small quantities (from 0.5% to 2% of the cow feed) in consultation with animal nutrition experts. Exact cow feed rations are determined at each farm, in consultation with veterinarians and animal nutrition experts.

Palm fat is sometimes added to dairy cows’ rations in limited amounts to increase the energy of cow diets if needed. Fat is a small but important part of cows’ diets as it helps provide energy, helps increase fibre digestibility in the rumen (one compartment of the cow’s stomach) and helps cows maintain a healthy weight. This ingredient is approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency because it is safe and contributes to the cow’s overall health and welfare.

Not all farmers use palm fat – only some use it, some of the time. For example, if the nutritional value of a farm’s forage is low, cows need other sources of nutrition to meet their energy requirements. Adding a small dose of fat to supplement in their diet can help provide much-needed calories and energy and contribute to the overall health and well-being of the dairy cow.

What else do cows eat as part of their diet?

As ruminants, cows can eat a lot of different things, but all feed must be approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Farmers typically grow the crops they feed their animals, so there are differences throughout the country, based on regional differences in climate and soil conditions. A number of common crops include various grasses like alfalfa, grains like wheat, barley or corn, and oilseeds such as flax or canola. Generally speaking, cows’ rations include some combination of these popular crops, and this has been the case for decades.

As ruminants, cows also play a great role in recycling what could otherwise be food wasted in landfills, including crushed grains used to make drinks and other foods that humans consume, and parts of various plants that humans or other animals cannot digest.

Farmers work with cow nutrition experts who analyse the nutritional value of the crops they grow and make recommendations on possible supplements to ensure all the cow’s nutritional needs are met.

How do I know if the milk or butter products I’m consuming have a dairy product has been produced using palm fat supplements?

Palm oil is not an ingredient in milk or butter, so it is not listed as an ingredient on the package. Rather, palmitic fat – which is different than palm oil – is sometimes added as a nutritional supplement in cow feed. Feeds are not typically listed on the packaging, as they are digested by cows before any milk is produced.

As noted above, an expert working group is presently looking into the use of palm fat supplements in cow feed.

How often are palm fat supplements used in cows' feed?

Whether palm fat supplements are even used in the first place will vary by farm. Exact cow feed rations may vary according the specific nutritional needs of the cow or herd, and the differences between these needs and the nutritional value of the farm’s crops.

Factors that may affect the nutritional value of crops include regional differences in soil conditions and variations in climate, as well as variations due to crop storage conditions.

Cow feed rations are determined at the farm level in consultation with the veterinarian and animal nutrition experts.

When palm fat supplements are used, it is in very small quantities. All animal feed is approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Do Canadian dairy farmers use palm fat supplements because of supply management?

No. Palm by-products are used in dairy production in many countries where supply management doesn’t exist. Palm products are used in many other food sectors where supply management does not exist.

Is Canada the only country that feeds cows with palm fat supplements?

No. Dairy farmers in other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and others also use by-products that come from the palm oil sector.

Are there any changes in the processing sector that may influence that butter is hard?

While butter is made by churning, processing plants may have different techniques and differences. The expert working group is looking at potential factors at all points in the supply chain, from farm to fridge.

Do farmers get paid more to use palm fat supplements?

No, they do not.

Does the use of palm fat supplements affect the quality of milk and dairy products?

No! There are many types of fat (fatty acids) that appear in milk. The palmitic acid is a type of fat, which is naturally occurring in several plants and animals, in various levels. For example, palmitic acid represents 11% of the fat in olive oil and naturally makes up about one third of the fat in milk, whether or not supplements are used. It is also naturally occurring in human milk.

When supplements of palm fat are given to cows in Canada, the amount typically provided in their feed is small, and has a very minor impact on the palmitic acid content of their milk. It is estimated that the average increase in the palmitic acid content of dairy fat linked to this feeding practice is less than 3%. The fat profile of a cow’s milk, including its palmitic acid content, varies for various reasons besides her feed, including her breed (Jersey, Holstein, other), her stage of lactation and age.

Dairy farmers are uncompromising when it comes to quality and follow some of the most stringent standards in the world to uphold that commitment. All milk produced in Canada continues to be subject to Canada’s rigorous health and safety standards. Nothing has changed in this context.

What are the health consequences on cows from feeding them palm fat supplements?

Fat supplements, including the palm-based supplements have been used for decades in a targeted way to ensure cows are meeting their energy requirements, thus helping the health of cows.

Times when cows may require more energy include after giving birth to a calf, at the height of her lactation, or in the summer, when they may eat less because of the heat. 

The Animal Nutrition Association of Canada notes that its use in dairy feed is not new and is a safe ingredient, approved for use by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Lactanet, the Canadian dairy centre of excellence, also stresses that the inclusion of palm fat supplements in the cow’s nutrition is safe and brings specific benefits to cows.

Does the use of palm fat supplements affect human health?

There are currently no studies demonstrating that the use of palm fat as a nutritional additive to cow feed has any impact on human health.

All milk produced in Canada is as safe as ever to consume and is subject to Canada’s robust health and safety standards.

When supplements of palm fat are given to cows in Canada, the amount typically provided in their feed is small, and has a very minor impact on the fatty acid profile of their milk. It is estimated that it may increase the palmitic acid content of dairy fat by less than 3%. The fat profile and palmitic acid content of a cow’s milk varies naturally for other reasons besides her feed, including her breed, stage of lactation and age. The 3% fluctuation in palmitic acid levels attributable to palm fat supplements is well within the range of variation caused by these other natural factors.

Overall, milk plays a beneficial role towards our overall health and nutrition. One serving of milk contains 15 essential nutrients, is high in calcium, and provides 6 of the 8 nutrients many Canadians are lacking in their diet.

What is the environmental impact of using palm derived supplements in cows' feed?

The oil palm tree is the most efficient oil crop in terms of land use. It has the highest yield compared to other oil crops per hectare of land (Source: WWF). On average, one hectare of land produces 3.8 tonnes of palm oil per year, five times more oil than sunflower and seven times more oil than soy. Oil palm accounts for 7% of all the cultivated land for vegetable oils globally, but has the highest output, producing 38% of all oils and fats (Source: European Palm Oil Alliance).

Palm oil is the most consumed vegetable oil in the world. The palm fats used in cow feed are actually derived from what is left from production of palm oil, which means the cows are in fact upcycling what could otherwise be going to landfill.

Consumers have expressed a number of valid concerns about palm oil cultivation. We know that there has been a concerted effort in the palm oil industry to lessen its environmental impact and ensure its practices are aligned with universally acceptable social and environmental standards. We also know that the leading feed suppliers in Canada work only with suppliers certifying sustainably produced palm-derived products for animal feed. It is also important to have a full picture of alternate options before making any recommendations.

Did farmers stop feeding palm fat?

Farmers have been asked to consider alternate feeding strategies. It should be noted that feeding cows is teamwork and is planned long in advance. Farmers need to work with their veterinarians and cow nutrition experts to make informed choices in feeding their cows, based first on the crops they grow on the farm, the nutritional profile of these crops and then any supplement that may be needed to ensure the cows have adequate intake of all the nutrients they need, including minerals, vitamins and fats.

Do farmers know what they feed their cows?

Farmers work with cow nutrition experts and their veterinarians to ensure their cows eat a healthy diet. While some farmers have a solid understanding of cow nutrition themselves, other farmers may rely more on the expertise of outside advisers to ensure their cows are well nourished.

What’s next?

Our Commitments

Canadian dairy farmers meet the most stringent standards in the world for milk quality, animal welfare, food safety, biosecurity, traceability and environmental stewardship.

Learn more
Delicious Apple Cookies Recipe

Loaded with oats, milk and apples, these moist apples cookies are Our Dietitians’ Favourite!

Learn more