Nutella, the sweet and delicious hazelnut cocoa spread manufactured by Italian confectionery firm Ferrero is one of the best-known food brands and a popular breakfast treat for children. Nutella uses Palm Oil in its manufacturing process and has come up with a public defence of its use that some other food companies in Italy have been boycotting after a European study raised Cancer risks.
The European Study and Cancer Risks
A study released by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in May 2016 says that Palm Oil (an ingredient in Nutella), when refined at high temperatures releases potentially Carcinogenic chemicals. Compared to other vegetable oils, the study found that when refined at around 200 degrees Celsius, palm oil generated higher levels of the potentially carcinogenic contaminant known as Glycidyl Fatty Esters (GE). The aim of the study was to investigate contaminants of processed vegetable oils and assess their possible health risks. Note that the Glycerol-based process contaminants (glycidyl fatty esters) were also found in other vegetable oils, margarines and some processed foods. Palm oil, which is derived from the fruit of palm trees, is however used in plenty of food products.
Studies in the past have shown that glycidyl fatty esters (GE) can cause Tumors in Rats and Mice, so the European Food Safety Authority characterized it as a “potential health risk” for average consumers of such processed foods in all young age groups, and for high consumers in all age groups. The study also noted that for consumers aged three and above, margarines, pastries and cakes were the main sources of exposure to all such substances. However, EFSA did not recommend consumers to stop consuming Palm Oil and suggested further study to assess the level of risk. The World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization have same stand on palm oil use in food, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration too did not ban it.
Rise of Palm Oil Issue
The issue of Palm Oil use in food products became a hot topic in Italy because supermarket chain Coop and well-known baker Barilla eliminated palm oil use in all their products after the findings of aforementioned EFSA study suggesting potential health risks. It was more of a preventive and safety measure. Following the changes, many other Italian manufacturers also started including palm oil-free labels on their product packaging.
Palm oil industry came under pressure in Europe after authorities listed the edible oil as a potential cancer risk. Sales of Ferrero products dipped down through the first part of 2016, and the company also launched a major advertising campaign on Italian TV and in newspapers to defend Nutella and assure the public about its safety (see the Italian video in this article). Ferrero says palm oil is used in Nutella for its smooth texture and shelf life, and other substitutes like Sunflower oil shall change its character, making it inferior. In the advertisement, a Ferrero spokesperson said the company selects raw materials and industrial processes that minimise the process contaminants concerning consumer’s health. The advertisement has however drawn criticism from some politicians.
On the other hand, palm oil is relatively a cheap vegetable oil. According to Reuters, Ferrero uses about 185,000 tonnes of palm oil a year, and replacing it with substitutes like Sunflower oil or Rapeseed oil would cost the firm an extra $8-22 million annually. Talking about the process contaminants the EFSA study raised, Ferrero told Reuters that they refine palm oil at just under 200 degrees Celsius and use extremely low pressure to minimize the GE levels. Meanwhile, two other big companies Unilever and Nestle also use palm oil in products including chocolate, snacks and margarine, and said they are monitoring the contaminant issue and are working to keep the GE at lowest possible levels. Consumer’s health concern aside, Palm oil plantations have also been linked to deforestation, air pollution, and illegal labour practices, and have been under pressure from environmental groups.