Retailers in Italy Boycott Nutella over Concerns it Could Cause Cancer

Retailers in Italy Boycott Nutella over Concerns it Could Cause Cancer

Several retailers in Italy have decided to boycott Nutella, the highly popular chocolate-hazelnut spread, over concerns that the spread could cause cancer. [1]

In May, the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) said that a contaminant found in the palm oil used to make Nutella is carcinogenic, and warned that even moderate consumption of the substance posed a risk to children. No level could be considered safe, according to EFSA.

Palm oil is used to make many types of food, including Cadbury’s chocolate and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but Nutella seems to be taking the brunt of the backlash.

Ferrero is not taking the claims lying down, and has launched an advertising campaign aimed at reassuring customers that Nutella is safe.

Keeping palm oil in the Nutella recipe is a matter of quality, not quantity, Ferraro says. The substance gives the spread its smooth texture, which the company says can’t be accomplished with other oils. Ferrero’s purchasing manager Vincenzo Tapella said:

“Making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the real product, it would be a step backward.”

According to calculations by Reuters, substitute oils, derived from sunflowers or rapeseed, could increase the cost of Nutella production by $22 million. Ferraro hasn’t confirmed those figures. Ferrero uses 185,000 tons of palm oil each year. [3]

The Cancerous Issue with Palm Oil

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Palm oil plantation in Thailand.

The cancer scare centers around glycidyl fatty acid ester (GE), which is produced in palm oil when it is heated above 200 degrees Celsius, as it is in the processing of many foods.

Ferrero says that high temps are used to remove palm oil’s natural red color and neutralize its smell, but it uses an industrial process which heats the oil to just shy of 200 degrees Celsius. In one of the company’s new ads, Tapella tells viewers:

“The palm oil used by Ferrero is safe because it comes from freshly squeezed fruits and is processed at controlled temperatures.” [2]

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization flagged the palm oil/GE risk, but did not recommend that people stop eating it. In the U.S., the FDA has taken no steps to ban palm oil. [3]

Dr. Helle Knutsen, chair of Contam, the EFSA panel that investigated palm oil, said in May:

“There is sufficient evidence that glycidol is genotoxic and carcinogenic, therefore the Contam panel did not set a safe level for GE.” [1]

EFSA also did not recommend that people stop eating palm oil, however, and said further research was necessary to assess the cancer risk.

Activists Ignite Independent Bans

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Retailers in Italy started banning Nutella after being pressured by activists, including Italy’s main farming association Coldiretti and online food magazine Il Fatto Alimentare, which urged all food companies to halt the use of palm oil. [3]

GE can be found in other vegetable oils, margarines, and processed foods; however, EFSA said it found that it was produced in higher, potentially dangerous amounts in palm oil. [1]

As for Ferrero’s claims that it heats its palm oil to less than 200 degrees Celsius, EFSA declined to comment on the potential risks of refining palm oil at lower temperatures.

To the company’s credit, Ferraro says it buys palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which works with producers to reduce the negative impacts of cultivation on the environment. [3]


[1] Independent

[2] The Sun

[3] Reuters