A controversy over palm oil threatens to cast a pall over Nutella, the delicious chocolate-hazelnut spread made by the Italian company Ferrero. Headlines like “Nutella Can Cause Cancer, Study Warns” have circulated across the internet this week, but is Ferrero really including an ingredient that might give consumers cancer?
The study, released by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) last May, does not say that Nutella can cause cancer. What the study does say is that palm oil, an ingredient in Nutella, releases potentially carcinogenic chemicals when refined at high temperatures. Palm oil, derived from the fruit of palm trees, is used in plenty of food. When refined at around 200 degrees Celsius, the study says, palm oil releases a contaminant known as glycidyl fatty esters (GE) in higher levels than other vegetable oils. Previous studies have shown that GE can cause tumors in rats and mice, leading EFSA to characterize it as a “potential health risk” for children and anyone who consumes it in high amounts.
It’s important, of course, to remember that humans aren’t rats, so the findings may translate imperfectly to people. In an email, an EFSA spokesperson said that “at the moment, there is no scientific evidence” of a link between exposure to GE and cancer in humans, noting that “our conclusions are based on available evidence on experimental animals.”
“However, these effects occur with a biological mechanism that is plausible to be relevant for humans,” the spokesperson said. The spokesperson also stressed that the aim of the report “was not to evaluate the safety of palm oil as such, but to assess possible health risks related to the presence of process contaminants in refined vegetable oils.”
The EFSA did not call for a ban on palm oil, and unlike the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European organization has no power to implement regulations. But the European Commission can use its advice to develop food regulations. The Commission plans to issue guidelines on GE levels by the end of this year, though it has no plans to ban palm oil altogether, Reuters reports.
The levels of GE in palm oils dropped by half from 2010 to 2015, according to the EFSA, due to “voluntary measures taken by manufacturers.” Activists in Italy have pressured food manufacturers to move away from palm oil in recent years, citing concerns over health and environmental damage linked to palm oil plantations. A petition launched in 2014 to “stop the invasion of palm oil” has garnered more than 170,000 signatures, while the Five Star Movement, Italy’s populist party, introduced a motion in 2015 to ban palm oil from public cafeterias.
Following the release of the EFSA report, the Italian supermarket Coop removed all of its branded products that contain palm oil, describing the move as a “precaution,” and in 2015 it introduced a Nutella-like spread made with sunflower oil. But Ferrero says that replacing palm oil would fundamentally change the quality of Nutella.
"Making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the real product, it would be a step backward," Vincenzo Tapella, Ferrero’s purchasing manager, told Reuters this week. The move would be costly, as well: Reuters estimates that replacing palm oil with substitutes such as sunflower oil or rapeseed oil would add between $8 million and $22 million to Ferrero’s costs.
Ferrero tells Reuters that it refines palm oil at just under 200 degrees Celsius, using a low-pressure process that minimizes GE levels. The EFSA declined to comment on the safety of lower-temperature processing, saying that it “was outside of the scope of the opinion” published last year. But the spokesperson said that the presence of contaminants would presumably increase at higher temperatures, and that it could therefore decrease at lower temperatures.
Ferrero launched a major ad campaign on Italian TV and in newspapers last year to defend Nutella, after sales in Italy dipped through the first part of 2016. The manufacturer attributes some of that dip to the fact that competitors have begun labeling their products as palm oil-free, Reuters reports.
Ferrero has worked to burnish Nutella’s reputation in the US, as well. Last year, the company petitioned the FDA to classify Nutella as a jam rather a dessert topping, which would have reduced the serving size (and corresponding calorie count) on the spread’s nutritional label.
Nutella’s cancer risks may be overblown by the press, but there are still plenty of good reasons not to eat palm oil. Palm oil plantations have been linked to deforestation, air pollution, and illegal labor practices. Although Ferrero says it sources palm oil from sustainable plantations, it has still come under criticism from environmentalists. France’s ecology minister urged the public to “stop eating Nutella” in 2015, adding that it should be made with “other ingredients.”
Roberto La Pira, director of the Italian online food magazine Il Fatto Alimentare, says Ferrero’s defense of Nutella underscores the pressure the company has felt from competitors and activists. (La Pira’s magazine launched the online petition against a palm oil “invasion.”) In a phone interview, La Pira noted that the Italian food company Barilla removed palm oil from many of its products last year, and that several other Italian manufacturers now include palm oil-free labels on product packaging. In his view, Ferrero’s decision to stick with palm oil has more to do with the company’s bottom line than it does the quality of Nutella.
"It's a business decision," La Pira said. "If Barilla can do it, that means Ferrero could, too, no?"