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Palm Fat Supplements and Cow Feed: What Are the Facts?

Recent attention has been raised in the media regarding the use of palm fat derived supplements in cow feed and the impact this may have on the properties of butter, particularly as related to its firmness. Below is some information to answer frequently asked questions on this topic.

What’s all this I’m hearing about differences in the hardness of butter?
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 ruminant 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.

Why, when, and how much of these supplements are fed to cows?
At times, a fat supplement rich in palmitic acid is given to a cow in a targeted way and in very small amounts as a supplement to her diet. This ingredient is approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency because it is safe for both animals and humans and contributes to the cow’s overall health and welfare.1 When supplements of palmitic acids are given to cows in Canada, the amount provided in their feed is very small, typically less than 2% of the feed.2

The make-up of cow feed is determined at each farm in consultation with veterinarians and ruminant nutrition experts who analyse the nutritional value of the crops the farmer grows and who make recommendations on possible supplements to ensure all the cow’s nutritional needs are met.  All feed ingredients in Canada are approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ensure safety for animals and humans.3  

Whether a palmitic acid supplement is used will vary by farm, according to a cow’s nutritional needs, weather and the nutrition profiles of their crops.

What is the impact on milk’s nutritional profile?
Palmitic acid (16:0) is a saturated fatty acid naturally present in the diet from foods of both plant and animal origin and synthesized endogenously. It is an essential component of cell membranes, secretory and transport lipids, with crucial roles in protein palmitoylation and palmitoylated signal molecules.4 Palmitic acid is the most abundant naturally occurring fatty acid in milk, and other dairy products like butter.5

Regardless of whether palm fat supplements are used, the amount of palmitic acid in milk naturally varies due to various factors, including the stage of lactation of a cow, her age, her breed (Holstein and Jerseys are different) and the nutritional profile of her overall feed.6

Palmitic acid supplements, when used, have a very minor impact on the palmitic fatty acid content of a cow’s milk. The increase in the palmitic fatty acid content of milk fat through the typical use of this supplement here in Canada is less than 3% which is well within the natural variation of this fatty acid in milk due to other factors.2

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.

Is palm oil or fat added to butter or milk?
No, palm oil is never added to butter or milk. A CFIA-approved supplement rich in palmitic acid is sometimes added in small quantities to the cow feed. And, any palm fat supplement fed to a cow is digested by the cow, just as is the case with corn silage, hay, grass and other feed she eats.

How are dairy farmers responding to consumers’ concerns?
An expert working group 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, in the interim, we have asked dairy farmers to consider alternative feeding strategies to meet their cows’ nutritional needs while the group looks into the matter further.

References

  1. Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Approved Feed Ingredients. https://inspection.canada.ca/animal-health/livestock-feeds/approved-ingredients/eng/1322975007194/1322975281243. Accessed March 15, 2021.
  2. Daniel Lefebvre, Chief Operating Officer, Lactanet, Canadian Network for Dairy Excellence, personal communication.
  3. Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Introduction - Regulation of Livestock Feed in Canada. https://www.inspection.gc.ca/animal-health/livestock-feeds/regulatory-guidance/rg-1/introduction/eng/1493737712622/1493737821272. Accessed March 15, 2021.
  4. Innis SM. Palmitic Acid in Early Human Development. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2016; doi: 10.1080/10408398.2015.1018045. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25764297/
  5. Canadian Nutrient File. https://food-nutrition.canada.ca/cnf-fce/index-eng.jsp. Accessed March 15, 2021.
  6. Hanus O et al. Role of fatty acids in milk fat and the Influence of selected factors on their variability—a review. Molecules 2018; https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23071636.

Keywords: Palm fat supplements , Palm oil , Butter , Butter hardness , Cow feed


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