Getting to the Bottom of Palm Oil Use in Dairy Production

By Simon Jacques

In the spring of 2020, as locked-down Canadians were on a home-baking spree, reports started circulating on the Internet that butter was getting harder. Food blogger Julie Van Rosendaal reported on twitter that hundreds of Canadians had corroborated her claim that butter was indeed harder. The issue received more attention when Sylvain Charlebois, the senior director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics lab, proposed that increasing use of palm oil supplements in dairy feed was producing harder butter. Charlebois is also a critic of Canada’s supply management system, which imposes tariffs on imported dairy and quotas to prevent milk oversupply. In an interview on CBC Charlebois argued that supply management imposes a moral imperative on dairy farmers to adapt their production practices in response to public opinion. The situation has been dubbed the “Canadian Buttergate Scandal”, and has been picked up by news agencies around the world, including NPR and the BBC.  

 The Organic Council of Ontario has prepared the following FAQ around this topic in an effort to respond to inquiries and interest in the use of palm-derived fat supplements in dairy production in organic and conventional production systems. 

Q: Are Canadian Dairy Farmers feeding palm-derived fat supplements to cattle?

While the practice is certainly not universal, it does appear to be common, with significant regional differences. This report suggests that only 22% of Québec dairy farms use palm-oil supplements, but in Alberta the number is 90%. This type of supplement is also common in dairy production in Europe, the United States, and New Zealand amongst others.

Q: Why do dairy farmers feed palm-derived fat supplements?

The breeding of dairy cows for milk production has been so successful that during key points in their milk cycle the energy required for milk production exceeds the amount of energy their bodies can absorb. For comparison, a standard beef cow will produce between 4 and 8 litres of milk per day while a dairy cow can produce an average of about 30 litres per day, and as much as 60 litres per day in peak times, that is about 8 times the milk produced by a beef cow. Dairy cows are eating as much as can fit into their 4 stomachs, and it still isn’t enough. As a result, they draw from their body fat reserves and lose weight during these times, farmers try to counter this by feeding a more energy-dense diet.

The obvious choice is more grain and less forage, but this causes acidosis (lowering of the pH of the rumen), which can lead to ulcers that allow rumen bacteria to enter the bloodstream and cause infections. The next option is feeding fat (the most energy-dense type of food – twice as dense as grain).

Q: Why palm-derived fats? Why not use other sources of fat?

Cattle are not well suited to eating high-fat foods. Fat causes immediate, short-term health problems; particularly in the rumen. Rumen bacteria don’t like fat. It causes them to function poorly, which lowers milk production and causes health problems. To solve this, they need a fat that can pass through the rumen into the lower stomachs. These are called “Rumen Bypass Fats”. To bypass the rumen, the fat needs to stay solid at body temperature. There are essentially two ways this has been achieved:

Option 1: Reacting the fat with a hydroxide, usually calcium hydroxide, to make a soap. This is the most common option, and has been done for decades. It can be done with any type of fat, from beef tallow to canola oil, however the processing of palm oil for human food produces a by-product that is cheap and works well for this application, so most bypass fat soaps are made from palm oil. This method works insofar as it provides the animal with the extra energy she needs, however it can be hard to get cattle to eat it, since as you can imagine soap does not taste good.

Option 2: Choosing a fat with a very high melting point, higher than the body temperature of a cow. Solid fats will not affect rumen bacteria and pass through to be digested in the lower stomachs and intestines. Palm oil has one of the highest melting points of any fat, but not quite high enough for straight palm oil to work. The oil must be further processed. There are a couple of ways to do this:

  1. Hydrogenation: This is the old way of making margarine; the process that got a bad rap when it was found to create “trans-fats” which cause health problems in humans and cause issues with cattle as well. While this can work to get cattle the needed energy, the trans fats lower butterfat production, so this type of by-pass fat is not common.
  2. Fractional distillation: This process involves heating natural oils and cooling them in a way that results in a separation of the saturated and less-saturated fats. By separating palm oil into its constituents and isolating the palmitic acid (the most highly saturated component of palm oil), one can make a fat that melts at about 55 degrees Celsius (higher than body temperature). This option appears to solve all the previous problems by giving the cow the extra energy it needs, which results in higher milk production, and even increases the percentage of butterfat in the milk and is more appetizing. Furthermore, it appears to increase the amount of saturated fat in the butterfat. As we saw above, the more saturated the fat the higher the melting point, so butter with more saturated fat stays harder at higher temperatures.

Q: Where does palmitic acid come from?

Palmitic acid is the most common long-chain saturated fatty acid found in food. It is named after the palm because palm oil is particularly high in palmitic acid (about 44% of the fatty acids in crude palm oil are palmitic). Palmitic acid is a component of most fats, and butter is naturally quite high in palmitic acid, even if the cows have never consumed palm oil. About 28-32% of the fatty acids in butter are palmitic acid. It appears that feeding palmitic acid supplements increases the amount of butterfat in the milk and increases the proportion of palmitic acid in the resulting butterfat. Alberta’s supply management system currently pays a higher premium for butterfat, so this might explain why these relatively expensive supplements are more popular there.

Q: Can organic dairy farmers feed palm-derived fat supplements?

The Canadian Organic Standards do not specifically prohibit palm oil or fat supplements, however any palm-fat supplement would have to be certified organic (made from organic palm oil and processed according to a CFIA-recognized organic standard). In looking into it, OCO could only find one certified organic dairy fat supplement, made from saponified soybean oil (saponified with calcium hydroxide) and did not find any organic palm-based dairy fat supplements on the market. As noted above, feeding crude palm oil is not really an option, as it would melt in the rumen and cause health problems.

Q: Does organic dairy have less palmitic acid?

This study from the Netherlands showed that organic butter had slightly less palmitic acid than conventional butter (31.77% of total fatty acids in conventional vs 30.19 in organic). Higher levels of palmitic acid would be expected to result in a harder butter that stayed solid at higher temperatures. This study was not investigating the use of palm-supplements, so it is not clear if any of this difference was due to the use of palm oil.

Q: Should we ban palm-derived fat supplements in organic dairy?

While it does not appear that Canadian organic dairy farmers are using palm oil supplements, if an organic product were to enter the market it would be allowed. The environmental impacts of palm oil have been the subject of recent public attention, but the issues are not limited to palm oil. Many of the common components of dairy feed are being grown in cleared rainforests around the world. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soybeans. Soybean meal could make up as much as 25% of a dairy ration, whereas palm oil supplements are fed at less than 1% of the total diet. Perhaps the issue of palm oil in dairy would be better addressed as part of a larger examination of the use of imported feeds in Canada and the globalized food system as a whole.

Q: What should I do if I want to avoid supporting the palm oil industry?

If we want to eat saturated fats that are solid at room temperature, our options are limited. Coconut oil is an option, but coconut is a type of palm grown in the tropics and may be responsible for more species loss than palm oil. Many margarines now blend palm oil with liquid vegetable oils to obtain the desired hardness without resorting to hydrogenation, which creates trans-fats and the associated health concerns. As an example, Becel is 6% palm oil. How does that compare to butter? Let’s assume that a dairy cow that produces 2.5kg of butterfat per day were being fed 250g/day of palm supplements (the high end of the recommended amount). One could argue that in this situation it takes 100g of palm to produce 1kg of butterfat, compared to 60g to produce 1kg of Becel. 

However, since many Canadian dairy farmers are not using palm at all, and many at lower inclusion rates, it appears safe to say that buying butter is one of the best solid-fat options for avoiding the palm industry. Given the lack of certified organic palm oil supplements for dairy in Canada, buying organic butter likely means you are not supporting the palm industry. Currently, palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, partly because it produces more oil per acre than any other crop. Consumers seeking change to the current system need to demand that companies using palm oil commit to alternative responsible and sustainable sources for their ingredients.

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