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Why Is Room-Temperature Butter In Canada Mysteriously Harder Than Usual?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's a culinary mystery. Over the last year, people cooped up at home have been baking a lot more. That means using more butter. And in Canada, those home bakers started to notice something odd. Room temperature butter wasn't as soft as usual. It didn't spread as well. People posted about this on social media and started to investigate. One of those sleuths tweets under the handle @foodprofessor. His name is Sylvain Charlebois, and he's director of Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SYLVAIN CHARLEBOIS: Well, thank you.

SHAPIRO: So on December 29, you tweeted, is it me or is hashtag butter much harder at room temperature? First, can I just ask what you were baking when you tweeted this?

CHARLEBOIS: (Laughter) I was - it was in the middle of the holidays, of course, and I was baking cookies.

SHAPIRO: Of course (laughter).

CHARLEBOIS: And, yeah, so we've noticed that there was some changes for a while, actually. It's just - I had some time to communicate this to the rest of the world through Twitter.

SHAPIRO: So you identify the problem. Where did you begin your investigation?

CHARLEBOIS: I was talking to some people in the food industry, in the dairy industry. And we tried to find out what was wrong, and a lot of discussions were based on animal feed and practices at farm gate.

SHAPIRO: And so you identified a likely culprit. What is it?

CHARLEBOIS: The culprit that has been identified quite several times is the use of palmitic acids.

SHAPIRO: Which comes from palm oil, right?

CHARLEBOIS: That's correct. It's a byproduct of palm oil given to cows. It's a practice that has been around for more than a decade in Canada. It's allowed in many places around the world, 17 or 18 countries, including America. But based on the reaction - Canada population's reaction, I don't think people knew.

SHAPIRO: Now, why would this byproduct of palm oil be tied to a spike in demand for butter?

CHARLEBOIS: Farmers do make a lot of money selling butter fat. And to generate more butter fat, you need to change the way you feed your animals. Either you actually get more cows to lactate, or you feed your animals very differently. And one way to do it is to actually change supplements you give to cows, including palmitic acids.

SHAPIRO: Now, palm oil plantations can be harmful to the environment, but is adding this byproduct to butter harmful to humans? Does it violate any regulations in Canada?

CHARLEBOIS: I think your question really points to what, really, the buttergate (ph) is all about.

SHAPIRO: Buttergate, which is the name you gave the scandal, yeah.

CHARLEBOIS: That's right (laughter). Yes, tongue in cheek, but it went viral. And I think, really, the issue we have, at least in Canada, is this complete disconnect between animal science - so practices on farms, how we feed animal - and food science, assessing the quality of food products that retail, products that are sold in Canada. We don't think they are harming people, but we've never really thoroughly analyzed the quality of these products.

SHAPIRO: And now in Quebec, there's been a policy change connected to this. Tell us about it.

CHARLEBOIS: Well, there's been a lot of changes just this week. Quebec is a very important province in Canada and dairy because half of dairy farms are located in the province. And so they've - actually, they announced that they would ban the practice, and the next day, on Thursday, it was announced by the Dairy Farmers of Canada that they would ask members to cease the practice, and they've launched an investigation as a result.

SHAPIRO: That's food researcher Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University. Thank you for explaining buttergate to us.

CHARLEBOIS: (Laughter) My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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