Hard cold Canadian butter

Perhaps you saw it in the news. There has been a lot of excitement about butter in Canada in the past few days. It made the news headlines about all around the world. The butter in Canada seems to have become harder, and harder to spread over the past year or so. The blame seems to be about the use of palm oil in cow feed. This is interesting because it brings up some matters that I had addressed in my article on fats, earlier on in this blog (in particular read the sections about margarine vs. butter and how the fatty acids profile affects the physical quality of the product). Here are a couple of links about the “buttergate” in which you can find more details.



The funny thing is that I found butter to be a lot less enjoyable the first day I tried some almost when I moved in Canada 22 years ago. I do not think it was just me because right at the beginning of my stay here, I had been asked by a Canadian what I thought of the butter. He was asking me that because he had noticed that quite a few people he knew who had moved to Canada were complaining about the butter. I remember just answering something along the lines of “meh, not the best ever” and I had not paid too much attention to it after that. Yet, one of my neighbours in Vancouver had once started her own ranting about Canadian butter but she blamed the poor quality to the fact that, according to her, Canadian butter is frozen. I have never really tried to find out if it is always the case. Then, after I met the Canadian lady who is now my wife, I took her for trips to Europe about every year. Not only did she find all foods to taste much better there, she really developed an issue with Canadian butter in particular. And the issue has been –and still is- that the bloody thing is much stiffer at room temperature in Canada than the butter in my family in France even straight out of the fridge. One thing I know for sure is that in Canada there is 80% fat in butter, while in Europe it must be minimum 82%. Other thing I had noticed is how the Canadian salted butter is much more salty than in Europe. Anyway, I only buy unsalted butter. She has been adamant to go live in France since then. Food is one important reason for this move, and we are indeed making plans. The current Covid-19 pandemic has delayed this somehow but it is going to happen.

Personally, I have never been a fan of dairy in Canada. I find the butter, as mentioned, stiff and unpleasant to spread on bread. It also tends to break in a rough chunk instead of allowing me to cut all the way through when I cut a block out of the pound of butter to put on my butter dish, which makes the butter look like some frozen cottage cheese, which I always found weird and unappealing. I found Canadian cheeses tasteless and buttery. Ironic to see butter look like cheese and cheese loo like butter. Save me from blocks of cheddar or the likes of it. Actually, those would qualify more as butter to me than the butter. I cannot say anything good about Canadian attempts to make Brie or Camembert. Those have the softness and the appeal of hockey pucks. Not for me. Of course, I can find some imports, but the Canadian dairy sector has managed to get protection from the government and foreign cheese has import duties that make even the dullest Brie of Gouda about as expensive as precious metals. I seriously object paying 2 to 3 times what I consider the normal price of cheese. Along with dull quality, it is the same problem with bread, which is why I make my own, and the same why I make my own deli and grow my vegetables. So, since I am in Canada, I do not eat much cheese anymore. Milk is not any more attractive, either. I always found it somehow soapy and with a weird mouth feeling, not to mention that I really do not need to have extra vitamins in it, and even less so when it is added as a palmitate compound, which is… guess what… related to palm oil. So here it goes again. At least, something is consistent here. Perhaps, they want to feed us as much as palmitic acid as they can because palmitic acid is such a great saturated fatty acid that has this great characteristic that it tend to increase the level of LDL, so so-called bad cholesterol. Thank you Canadian dairy industry and Canadian government for the special care you give us. Ok that was sarcasm.

So, to sum up what is in my previous blog articles and in the two links I gave at the beginning of this article, palm oil is in cattle feed. It seems that the countries where this happens are Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, interestingly enough all Anglo-Saxon countries with a fabulous world-famous cuisine. Some gave us mad cows; others inject their cows with growth hormones. Great foods, because as they will tell you, they comply with government regulations, which we all know are pretty much developed under pressure of industry lobbies to maximize producers’ profits, but have the nation’s seal on it to give it this appearance of independence, objectivity and care for the people. The sad thing with this food system model is that in fact it is a failure. This kind of production exists only because it is subsidized to death and that all inputs to produce are also subsidized to death. If you look at what on average taxpayers pay to subsidise a system that cannot survive without help, you would realize that the price of food is not as cheap as it seems, but since it is in the form of taxes, it will not be counted in the relative percentage of the share of food in the total household budget, which industry always present as a reason why they do such a great job for society. Also not included in the price of food is all the externalities, which we could also called collateral damage costs, such as impact of health and health costs (think cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, diabetes and overweight related ailments), which happens when you cut corners on health for profit reasons.

I have spent many years in the food industry and I also know that the truth is in the middle. I have heard the criticism when I was in the system. Things are never as bad as the opponents claim and they are never as good as the industry claims. That said, deliberately transforming butter into something in the direction of margarine (the original kind which consisted of saturating fats) while the early margarine (not very good stuff by then from a fatty acid profile point of view) industry was trashing butter as unhealthy is almost surrealistic. By then, butter had actually a much more positive and healthy fatty acid profile then the early margarines and got blamed. Once the margarine industry realized that their stuff was not that great, they have done nothing else than copying the profile of the “original” butter. And now, we discover that the Canadian butter industry is doing exactly the opposite of what they should be doing from a health perspective. It is amazing how the quest for more profit impairs thinking. The industry is populated with lots of really good and bright people. The knowledge is there and has been for decades. Yet, and just for profit, it is almost all of that is put to sleep or forgotten, and it really always baffles me to see how the industry, time and time over, is giving its opponents sticks to beat them up. Although food is not as cheap as it means, but it seems deceivingly so at the price label point, I believe it would be much better for all of us if it were more expensive but made healthier and more nutritious, because I have noticed that real quality is much more satisfying and that I get more with lesser quantities.

Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

A few interesting things about lipids

In the course of the past few decades, fats have gotten a negative reputation. Even though reason seems to make a timid comeback, as carbohydrates have taken over the role of the bogeyman, there still is a stigma on fats. The real culprit is not fat as much as it is overconsumption beyond our actual nutritional and physiological needs of fats, of food, of calories, well… of pretty much everything in our great consumption society. I will not spend time on the overconsumption of fats, as it is mostly a case of gluttony and ignorance about nutrition. I will write the following lines to show why fats are important and contribute to make life fun.

First of all, fats do belong is a healthy balanced diet. Fats, which are part of the lipids as they are called in biology, are building blocks of cell walls of living organisms. Lipids play very important roles in our metabolism and biochemistry. They store calories, which is convenient when food is scarce, but they have many more roles. Cholesterol, a lipid with a terrible reputation, plays an essential role in the synthesis of steroid hormones, which in turn play a role in sexual hormones. Cholesterol also plays a role in the synthesis of vitamin D. Other lipids include mono-, di- and tri-glycerides and fatty acids, and their cohort of saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated types. We all have heard about essential fatty acids, in particular omega-3 type is quite a popular one, and about their importance for good health. Just take the time to do some research on those terms and you will see how important lipids are. It is not particularly difficult, although it can be sometimes tedious, so just take your time to browse information.

Just any other thing in life, too much is exactly that: too much. Excesses always bring problems. It is true for fats. It is also true for the popular protein group. Health and nutrition are about balance and proper amounts.

Butter or margarine?There are some interesting consequences of the fatty acid composition of edible fats. First what is meant by saturated or unsaturated relates to the presence (unsaturated) or absence (saturated) of double bonds in the molecule of a fatty acid. An unsaturated fatty acid molecule has the ability to combine with oxygen or other atoms. When a fat combines with oxygen, it becomes oxidized, which is commonly known as rancid, with the bad taste that goes with it. Saturated fats do not have bonds that can open and combine with other elements. They are more stable. And that was the whole idea of margarine as a substitute for butter. Butter, as you probably know, can get rancid, especially if it is not refrigerated. A way to avoid that is to add ß-carotene, an orange pigment and precursor of vitamin A, to the butter, which is common in the dairy industry. The purpose of margarine was to have a butter substitute that would not get rancid and to do that, the process consists of hydrogenating (adding hydrogen to) the fat. The double bonds open and attach hydrogen atoms, thus leaving no space to oxygen to attach and make the fat rancid. Basically, the original margarine was fully saturated fat. It is ironic to know that when in the same time the margarine industry did all it could to discredit butter, which is a rather complex mix of long and short fatty acids, although mostly saturated. And it is also interesting to see that over time, margarine producers actually produced vegetable fat spreads that mimic butter much more than the original margarine ever would. Since I am addressing the processing of fats, unsaturated fats can turn into two different types called Trans and Cis. We have all heard about the risks of Trans fats and they are banned about everywhere nowadays. Trans and Cis are two spatial molecular configurations of a same fatty acid molecule, depending on which side of the molecule the radical is. This tiny difference has serious implications for metabolism and health, though.

Another characteristic of fatty acids is their physical property. In particular, saturated fats are usually harder at room temperature than mono-unsaturated and even more so than poly-unsaturated, because they have a lower melting point. The more double bonds there are in the fatty acid chain, the softer, even the more liquid the fat/oil is. Also, the longer the chain, the harder the fat is, as their melting point is lower. To sum up and simplify a bit, the softer or more liquid a fat/oil is at room temperature, the healthier it probably is.

Another characteristic of fats is that the fat profile in the food will influence the profile in the body fat. This is important to understand in regard with animal farming. If farm animals eat a diet that contains more unsaturated fats, their body fat will also be more unsaturated. This means that their meat will have a more unsaturated profile, which is a rather positive thing for you as the consumer. Of course, here the rule is always the same: the diet must be balanced.

Animal products and fat is quite an interesting topic, and a rather complex one, too. Fatty meat used to be the preference (think bacon). Why? Simply because I am talking about times when people did not live in overheated houses and had physically demanding jobs. Animal fat was rich in calories, which were quite useful both to do hard work and to live in cool homes. As comfort improved and mechanization made many jobs physically less demanding, the need for these calories decreased. If they are not being burnt, they accumulate in the body. That is why a comfortable life requires fewer calories than a demanding life. Yet, different cultures, because of culinary tradition, deal differently with the fattiness of farm animals destined to produce meat. In the EU, production shifted towards leaner breeds of animals, as consumers did not want fatty meat. In North America, the approach has been a bit different. They like fatty meat but cut off the meat on the plate, or eat quite a bit of it. A disadvantage of producing fat animals is that it requires more energy for their body to produce a pound of fat than it does to produce a pound of muscle. Males (I am talking farm animals here) generally produce leaner meat than females, but castrated males tend to produce a fattier meat than females. Using hormones in animal farming has an effect, too. Since the hormones used are female hormones, animals tend to fatten more. From the producer’s perspective, it is a matter of what the market pays for what quality of meat. In the EU, leaner animals receive a better price, but it is not everywhere the same around the world. Hormones also help reduce the cost as fattening goes faster. Fast is nice, but the age of an animal influences how much fat it gets in its tissues. Just like humans, farm animals have mostly water in their body tissues when they are young. When they age, fat gradually replaces the water, and we all know that losing the love handles gets more difficult with age. It is the same thing with animals. It is complex but fun, isn’t it?

What we have on our plate is all about economics. Depending on what consumers buy, the economic differ, and so do farming systems. Depending on production systems and consumer demand, fattiness of animal products varies. Although most people will tell you that meat is protein, this is far from always true. There different grades of fattiness between regular, lean and extra lean ground meat, for instance. Fat percentages vary greatly, from 10% to 30% of total weight, to simplify. Protein will be around 20% for most meats, regardless of the species. Keep in mind the main ingredient of meat is water. Animal bodies consist of roughly 60% water. If you remove the water and take the dry matter equivalent, fat percentages on dry matter will vary between 25% and 75%, while the number for protein will be around 50%. In the end, meat may contain more fat than protein, sometimes substantially more. Meat and protein are not the same. Just imagine what happens when you deep-fry meat, then!

Does fatty meat taste better? Meat lovers will tell you that they like their meat marbled. Here are a few interesting facts. The flesh of young animals contains more water than older animals, from an intra-species point of view. Of course, there is no point in comparing chickens and cows about this. But within the species, the rule applies, and so does the feeding program. An interesting detail about taste is that aromatic molecules are soluble in fat, but they are not soluble in water. Those aromatic compounds come from the food the animals eat. Therefore a fattier animal will contain more aromatic compounds than a leaner one, all things being equal further. Of course, the kind of feed they eat also contribute greatly. An animal that eats lots of bland feed will not have much of these compounds, even if it is rather fatty. And a less fatty animal that would eat lots of aromatic feed might taste better. When it comes to the marbling, aromatic compounds are not the only thing that plays a role. Marbled meat will keep its juiciness better and will have a softer texture than a lean meat. Lean meat contains relatively more water that will evaporate to some extent during the cooking and  as water leaves the meat fibers, the meat might end up a bit stringy, especially if it is cooked through and though.

Related imageDo you see now why a Pata Negra pig’s ham tastes so good? It is a pig that is kept in semi-wilderness in Spain and feeds for several years eating chestnuts and other shrubs in a region where vegetation is sparse. It is quite different from a pig that is fed intensively and slaughtered at 6 months of age or so. The price is not the same, either.

So there you have it, fat is good but you must make sure it is good fat and that you eat with moderation. In the end what you have on your plate is a compromise between many contradictory requirements such as taste, quality, cost and price.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

How much do people know about nutrition?

Here is a simple fun little exercise. Go ask your relatives, friends, neighbours or colleagues basic questions about nutrition. It is an eye opener.

Here is a list of 10 questions. The first one usually gets a reasonable rate of good answers. From there, it tends to go downhill.

  1. How many calories does a person need per day?
  2. How many grams of protein, fats and carbs does a person need per day?
  3. How many calories are there respectively in 1 gram of carbs, 1 gram of fat and 1 gram of protein?
  4. What percentage of the total calories should come from slow carbs, fast carbs, fat and protein?
  5. What are amino acids?
  6. What are essential amino acids, and how many are there?
  7. What are fatty acids?
  8. What are essential fatty acids?
  9. What is glycogen?
  10. What is insulin?

These are fairly basic questions about nutrition and the items listed play essential roles in or physiology and metabolism, and therefore in our health. Do not feel bad if you do not know all the answers because most people are like you. Even people who are involved in the food and agriculture sectors will stumble on those questions. A reason for this is simply that we do not at food as nutrition but we think of food much more in emotional terms than in rational terms. Our eating patterns are determined rather early in our lives and like many other things in life, we do not take a critical look at what we do but we just follow the pattern. Even serious health problems are not always enough to change our eating habits (what? give up bacon? You must be kidding me? -kind of reaction).

Just as an example, a few days ago I found an article from a significant US food company claiming that “children’s palletes are more adventurous nowadays”, referring to their finding that children are more interested in tasting dishes from exotic ethnic recipes. What on Earth has a palette anything to do with food? The proper word is palate. By the way, a palette is a range of colors. It is also the board that artists use to hold and mix paint.

When I read stuff like that, I am a bit worried. Remember my paragraph about the Gourmet impostors in my previous article? Here is a typical example of that, a company that wants to sound sophisticated by trying to use some fancy word that they do not even know.

I have worked many years in the agribusiness and the philosophy still is to push people to consume more of their stuff, not to educate them to build balanced meals unfortunately. My advice is: just learn about nutrition so that you know more than the food producers, and that should not take too long.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.