Nutella fights back after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said that the delicious hazelnut spread could cause cancer given the use of palm oil. But Nutella said that this is not true and that using a substitute to palm oil such as sunflower oil would decrease the quality of the product.

People are freaking out after a recent study showed that Nutella could be a threat to health. The palm oil used in Nutella releases potentially carcinogenic chemicals when it is refined at high temperatures. As well, for several years the use of palm oil has been criticized by environmentalists for the use of children workforce and the impact it has on ecosystems.

70 million hazelnuts are used daily to produce delicious Nutella. Image credit: Afrizap

“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.

There is not strong evidence about the effects of palm oil on humans

Ferrero, the maker of Nutella is defending the product from the rising claims that link Nutella to cancer. Back in May, the European Food Standards Authority said that palm oil emits contaminants that could be carcinogenic.

It warned that even a moderate consumption of these substances could have a negative impact on health. There is not enough data to suggest a level of consumption that could be safe.

The palm oil is present in several products including Cadbury’s chocolates or Ben and Jerry’s. However, Nutella is the one that is being attacked for the use of this oil to produce their famous chocolate-hazelnut spread.

According to the EFSA, palm oil which derives from the fruit of palm trees releases a contaminant known as glycidyl fatty esters (GE) in higher levels that other oils, when refined at 200 degrees Celsius.

Research demonstrates that GE can cause tumors in rats and mice, which is why the EFSA has called palm oil a potential threat to health. Obviously, humans are not rats, therefore the EFSA did say that there is not enough research to establish a clear link between GE consumption and cancer in humans. However, it did raise alarms.

Ferrero: “it is a business decision”

Given that the harmful effects of palm oil are not yet proven on people, the EFSA did not call for a ban on palm oil. As well, it doesn’t have the power to implement regulation unlike the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the European Commission can develop food regulation after the advice of the EFSA. The Commission is expected to issue guidelines on GE levels at the end of 2017.

In Italy, activists have pressured manufacturers to remove and substitute palm oil, due to the environmental damage caused by palm oil plantations. In 2014, a petition to “stop the invasion of palm oil” was signed by more than 170,000 people.

In 2015 the Five Star Movement, which is Italy’s Populist Party, introduced a motion to ban this oil from cafeterias. In Italy, sales fell three percent last year. Coop, which is the largest supermarket chain, recently removed 200 products containing palm oil, though Nutella was not removed from their shelves, yet. Nevertheless, Coop introduced a Nutella-like spread using sunflower oil.

After all this cancer-related claims, Ferrero has launched an advertising campaign to reassure that their product is safe to consume. Ferrero said that replacing palm oil in Nutella would decrease its quality. As well, replacing it with other oils such as sunflower oil or rapeseed oil would increase $8 million and $22 million to Ferrero’s costs. According to Ferrero, the palm oil is refined under 200 degrees Celsius, minimizing the GE levels.

Tapella said they would keep the palm oil, which gives Nutella its heavenly smooth moisture. They said it’s a business decision, driven by quality and not by costs. He said that the consumer’s health is Ferrero’s top priority.

Nutella has been a tradition in the tables of many families officially since 1964. However, its origins go back to 1946 when Pietro Ferrero sold 300 kg of “Pasta gianduja,” an invention that was a result of the lack of chocolate supply in Europe due to the Second World War. Ferrero substituted chocolate with hazelnuts and that is how Nutella was born.

Environmentalists concern about palm oil plantations

But even if Nutella can be consumed without fears of developing cancer. There are other reasons to halt the consumption of products with palm oil among its ingredients. Its plantations have been linked to deforestation, illegal child labor, air pollution and destruction of ecosystems.

According to Amnesty International, companies such as Kellogg’s, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser and Unilever have been using kids under 8 to work in palm oil plantations in Indonesia under precarious conditions, which include weighing 20 kg palm fruit sacks.

It has also been reported that these plantations endanger species such as orangutans. However, Ferrero said that they use sustainable palm oil plantations certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) integrated by a group of producers to set standards in the industry. But the RSPO has been attacked for having low standards and a weak enforcement.

Source: The Verge