Randy Shore, POSTMEDIA NETWORK
First posted: Thursday, October 13, 2016 09:39 PM EDT | Updated: Thursday, October 13, 2016 09:45 PM EDT
Canadian butter has the highest omega-6 fatty acid content compared with butter produced in 13 countries included in an analysis by researchers at the University of British Columbia - Okanagan.
Canadian butter's high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids — which recent research has implicated in heart disease, gastrointestinal inflammation and cancer — is likely to apply to all Canadian dairy products, according to Sanjoy Ghosh, a Michael Smith Health Research Foundation scholar.
"Canadian butter had the worst omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, it's double what you see in French butter," said Ghosh. "Our butter really sucks. There's no other way to spin it."
Omega-6 content was highest in commercial butter samples from Canada, the United States and China, while samples from Russia, Belarus, France and Germany contained the least. Butter from grass-fed cows had the most balanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
The finding may explain why health research on the benefits and hazards of animal and vegetable fats are so contradictory in different parts of the world and why government advice on what people should eat and avoid have different health outcomes in different countries.
Consumers have been running circles for decades, trying to react to health advice that steered them away from animal fats and toward vegetable oils and back again. Most recently, corn, cottonseed and soybean oil have been vilified for their unhealthy omega ratios, while findings on butter are mixed.
"Some research says butter is fine, other findings say it's not," Ghosh explained. "But they had failed to do a chemical analysis to find out what was really in it."
Studies on the health impacts of dairy conducted in Europe tend to show positive effects, while similar studies in North America show no effect or a negative effect, he said.
"When we look at these results, the reason is pretty obvious," he said.
While omega-6 fatty acids are essential to human health, research shows that they should comprise about one per cent of daily calories and should be consumed about evenly with omega-3s, the researchers say. Canadians get five to 10 per cent of their calories from omega-6 fatty acids and eat roughly 17 times more omega-6 than omega-3.
The Dairy Farmers of Canada note that butter and dairy fat contain very little omega-6 fatty acid to begin with, so little that it is not considered a source of omega-6 in the Canadian diet. An average Canadian eats about half a tablespoon of butter per day.
"Given the butter intake of Canadians, while the difference with grass-fed butter may be statistically significant, it would be too small to have any effect on human health," a spokesperson said.
The study also found that the highest omega-6 content butter was produced in countries with the greatest amount of land devoted to oil seed production, particularly corn, soy and canola.
"What we feed our animals can make a big difference in the fatty acid composition of (meat and fat) and farmers are going to use what is most readily available and in Canada and the U.S. that's oil seeds," said PhD student Amy Botta, the study's lead author.
Corn, soybeans and processed canola seed meal are widely used in North America as feed for cattle, poultry, salmon and hogs.
"In countries where cattle are fed oil seeds instead of just grass and silage we are seeing differences in the butter," she said. "In France, even commercially produced butter is very close in composition to grass-fed and that likely has to do with what they are feeding their animals."
Scientists have struggled for decades to explain why people in France, with a diet high in animal fats have a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease compared with Britain and the United States.
"This result begins to explain the French paradox," said Ghosh.
The study was published this week in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
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