A report released by a European food watchdog has raised concerns about potential health risks involved in the consumption of Nutella, a popular hazelnut chocolate spread.
The report found evidence that palm oil, a primary ingredient in Nutella, is carcinogenic. Nutella’s manufacturer, the Italian-based corporation Ferrero Group, has responded to the report with an advertising campaign that downplays the risks of palm oil consumption.
The report, released last May by the European Food Safety Authority, examined the safety of contaminants created in vegetable oils during processing. The three substances examined by the report, known as glycerol-based process contaminants, are formed in vegetable oils such as palm oil when these oils are refined at high temperatures. The report stated that palm oil has higher levels of these contaminants than any other vegetable oil.
The investigating panel responsible for the report found sufficient evidence that these contaminants are carcinogenic. The panel failed to establish safe levels of intake for two out of the three contaminants studied. It noted that while a safe level of consumption had been established for the third contaminant, average intakes in young people, including adolescents, exceeded that level. The report cited palm oil as a major factor in exposure to these contaminants.
According to the Nutella website, palm oil is used in the popular spread due to its creaminess, spreadability, and neutral flavor after refining. The website points out that the use of palm oil in Nutella allows the manufacturer to avoid using trans fat-containing hydrogenated oils, which are known to increase the risk of heart disease. Recent increases in palm oil consumption are linked to a reduction in the use of these hydrogenated oils by many food manufacturers.
The production of the oil has also been linked to deforestation and loss of habitat for endangered primate species like orangutans. For these reasons, many consumers around the world have rejected palm oil-containing products.
After the EFSA’s report was released, Italian food activists put pressure on corporations to boycott palm oil. Coop, the largest supermarket chain in Italy, stopped using palm oil as an ingredient in its flagship brand products. Other manufacturers have also ceased using palm oil and are labeling their products as palm oil-free.
However, the makers of Nutella deny that the palm oil used in the popular spread is refined at the high temperatures known to create carcinogenic substances. In October, an ad campaign was launched in Italy, assuring consumers that the palm oil used in Nutella is safe because it is processed at lower temperatures. Ferrero claims that the process is more expensive and takes more time, but results in a palm oil with undetectable levels of contaminants.
While sales of Nutella have decreased in Italy following the EFSA report, global sales remain unaffected. According to Ferrero’s data, worldwide Nutella sales continue to increase at a rate of 5-6 percent each year. Malaysia and Indonesia, the major producers of palm oil worldwide, have also not experienced any decline in exports following the EFSA report.
According to The Boston Globe, Nutella is primarily consumed in the U.S. as a breakfast spread rather than as a dessert. In 2012, Ferrero agreed to pay a settlement of $3 million in a class-action lawsuit. The company was sued for false advertising based on its claims that Nutella was “part of a nutritious breakfast.”