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.”