According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), foods that contain palm oil—an ingredient manufacturers rely on for smooth texture and a long shelf life—could potentially pose a cancer risk. If that wasn’t bad enough news, our longtime favorite spread, Nutella, has been facing the most public repercussion as this controversial ingredient is listed as the third most prominent (tied only with sunflower oil) on the back of every jar.
The report explains that palm oil is more carcinogenic than any other oil, which would explain why major European retailers (including Coop, Italy’s largest supermarket chain) have already boycotted the spread over these hazardous claims. When heated above 200 degrees Celsius (this is done to remove its naturally red color and neutralize its smell, an extremely common step in the manufacturing of many foods), palm oil produces compounds called glycidyl fatty acid esters, which is when it becomes a dangerous risk to our health. “There is sufficient evidence that glycidol is genotoxic and carcinogenic,” said Dr. Helle Knutsen, chair of Contam, the EFSA panel that investigated palm oil in May. “Therefore the Contam panel did not set a safe level for GE.” While these compounds can be found in other vegetable oils and margarines, the ESFA report explains that they are found in much higher and potentially dangerous amounts in palm oil.
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Although the statistics are against them, Ferrero, Nutella’s manufacturer, isn’t going down without a fight. It has recently launched a new advertising campaign focusing on these claims directly, insisting it uses palm oil in a way that is not dangerous—supposedly, it combines a temperature of just below 200 degrees Celsius and extremely low pressure to minimize contaminants—and explaining that without this key ingredient, the spread we’ve all come to love wouldn’t be the same. What it doesn’t mention, however, is the cost factor behind the decision: Because palm oil is the cheapest oil on the market, an ingredient swap would easily cost the manufacturer an extra $8 to 22 million each year, Reuters reports.
The chocolate-meets-hazelnut spread continues the fight on its website under the “What’s Inside” section, explaining that palm oil is used in Nutella to give the product its creamy texture, as well as heighten the flavor of its ingredients. “It is the best ingredient for giving Nutella the right smoothness, guaranteeing its special spreadability, and above all, avoiding the hydrogenation process that would produce otherwise unhealthy trans fats.” While sources haven’t flat out told consumers to stop eating all foods that list palm oil as a main ingredient, we’re thinking cutting these foods out might be for the best anyways.
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