Nutella Makers Defend Palm Oil Amid Health Concerns

Ferrero is the first major European food company to defend the palm oil industry following reports that refined palm oil in foods may cause cancer.

Jan. 16, 2017
By Julie Al-Zoubi

Recent News

Ferrero is the first major European food com­pany to defend the palm oil indus­try fol­low­ing reports that refined palm oil in foods may cause can­cer. The Italian com­pany ran tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials and took out full-page news­pa­per adver­tise­ments to reas­sure con­sumers that it is safe to eat Nutella, which con­tains palm oil. Other Italian food com­pa­nies have removed palm oil from their prod­ucts.

Palm oil has been flagged by sev­eral European author­i­ties as a poten­tial can­cer risk. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reported that palm oil gen­er­ates more of a poten­tially car­cino­genic con­t­a­m­i­nant than any other veg­etable oil when refined at tem­per­a­tures of 200°C (392°F). The World Health Organisation (WHO) also flagged the risk. Neither orga­ni­za­tion has advised peo­ple to stop eat­ing palm oil. The EFSA said fur­ther research is needed to assess the risk.

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 told Reuters. In the pro-palm oil tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial filmed at Ferrero’s Alba fac­tory, Tapella claims, The palm oil used by Ferrero is safe because it comes from freshly squeezed fruits and is processed at con­trolled tem­per­a­tures.” Palm oil is the ingre­di­ent that gives Nutella its smooth tex­ture and extends its shelf life.

Skeptics have said that Ferrero, which uses around 185,000 tons of palm oil (the world’s cheap­est veg­etable oil) per year, is defend­ing palm oil for finan­cial rea­sons. It has been esti­mated that using a more expen­sive veg­etable oil would cost Ferrero around $8 to $22 mil­lion annu­ally. The com­pany would incur fur­ther expenses for chang­ing the Nutella recipe, sourc­ing new sup­pli­ers, updat­ing machin­ery and adapt­ing their man­u­fac­tur­ing processes. Nutella accounts for around a fifth of Ferrero’s total sales.

The EFSA report revealed that palm oil pro­duces car­cino­genic chem­i­cals called gly­cidyl fatty acid esters (GEs), when the oil is refined at tem­per­a­tures of 200 degrees Celsius. This process is nec­es­sary to remove palm oil’s nat­ural red color and neu­tral­ize its odor. Studies have shown that mice and rats repeat­edly exposed to GEs present increased inci­dences of tumors; spark­ing the fear that processed palm oil may pose an increased can­cer risk. Palm oil has par­tic­u­larly high lev­els of GEs although other oils also pro­duce it. The con­t­a­m­i­nant is not found in raw veg­etable oils.

Ferrero told Reuters that they use an indus­trial process that com­bines a tem­per­a­ture of just below 200 degrees Celsius with low pres­sure to min­i­mize con­t­a­m­i­nants. The process appar­ently takes longer and costs around 20 per­cent more than high-tem­per­a­ture refin­ing. Ferrero claims that their process reduces GE lev­els to traces barely detectable by sci­en­tific instru­ments.

While Ferrero rep­re­sen­ta­tives are adamant that sub­sti­tut­ing palm oil with another prod­uct such as sun­flower oil would change the char­ac­ter of Nutella, other Italian com­pa­nies have sub­sti­tuted palm oil with dif­fer­ent veg­etable oils. Italian super­mar­ket Coop has removed palm oil from its own branded prod­ucts. Italy’s largest baker, Barilla has labeled its prod­ucts palm oil free.”

Unilever and Nestlé are among European food com­pa­nies that con­tinue to use palm oil as an ingre­di­ent in their prod­ucts. Both com­pa­nies have said they are mon­i­tor­ing the con­t­a­m­i­nant issue and work­ing with sup­pli­ers to main­tain the low­est pos­si­ble lev­els of GEs. Palm oil is the world’s most con­sumed veg­etable oil, used in thou­sands of prod­ucts includ­ing mar­garine, choco­late bars and ice cream.

Nutella’s annual sales in Italy fell by about three per­cent through August 2016. Ferrero blamed rival prod­ucts being pro­moted as palm oil-free. Spreads sim­i­lar to Nutella which con­tain olive oil instead of palm oil are man­u­fac­tured by a num­ber of Italian com­pa­nies includ­ing choco­latier Venchi and La Selvotta.

Ferrero’s adver­tis­ing helped boost Italyian sales of Nutella by four per­cent from September, accord­ing to Alessandro D’Ester head of Fererro Italy. Global Nutella sales were largely unaf­fected by the scare.

This is not the first time Nutella has made the head­lines. In 2015 Nutella was the focus of a diplo­matic spat when the French envi­ron­ment min­is­ter Ségalène Royal called on con­sumers to boy­cott Nutella, claim­ing that the use of palm oil in Nutella con­tributed to defor­esta­tion. His Italian coun­ter­part Luca Galletti retorted Leave Italian prod­ucts alone. For din­ner tonight it’s bread with Nutella.” Royal later offered a thou­sand apolo­gies.”



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