- In May 2016, the European Food Safety Authority recommended limitations on the consumption of foods containing several compounds found commonly in products that use refined palm oil, such as baby formula.
- The refining process results in the formation of several potentially carcinogenic esters in many types of vegetable oils, but the average levels in palm oils and fats were substantially higher than those found in other types of oil.
- Ferrero, the Italian manufacturer of Nutella, said that the palm oil its product contains is processed at ‘controlled temperatures’ and is ‘safe.’
Nutella lovers can continue to indulge in the chocolate-hazelnut spread without fear of health risks from the palm oil it contains, according to the product’s manufacturer, Ferrero.
In October, the Italian confectioner began running advertisements on television assuring the Italian public of the safety and quality of one of its flagship products and has reportedly also purchased ad space in several newspapers with a similar message. The campaign is an apparent response to warnings by a European food safety organization that several substances found in refined palm oil could be carcinogenic.
Much of the controversy around palm oil in recent years has centered on its reported impact on deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions as the world’s most popular vegetable oil. Meanwhile, concerns about how healthy it is have simmered in the background. That is, until tensions boiled over in May 2016 when the European Food Safety Authority published research about contaminants that result from the refining process used for palm oil and other vegetable oils in EFSA Journal.
The authors of the study found that heating certain vegetable oils to temperatures of 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit) induces the formation of the fatty acid esters of glycidyl (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol and 2-monochloropropanediol. According to the Singapore-based agribusiness giant Wilmar International, the final step of refining palm oil involves heating it to 240 to 260 degrees C (464 to 500 degrees F) to remove the odor and taste.
The study’s authors concluded that these substances should be avoided in “average amounts” for infants, toddlers and children. For adolescents and adults, only “high” exposure to the chemicals was cause for concern, they wrote.
Refined palm oil and fats contained the highest levels of these compounds, according to the report, compared to 15 other groups of vegetable oils and fats. For example, the average level of GE in palm oils and fats was more than 7.5 times higher than corn oil, which contained the second-most GE among the oils reviewed.
The danger from these substances – which has been confirmed in studies on animals – is cause for concern, said Helle Knutsen, a toxicologist who chairs the food safety authorities panel on contaminants known as CONTAM and an author of the study.
“There is sufficient evidence that glycidol” – the precursor to glycidyl – “is genotoxic and carcinogenic,” Knutsen said in a statement.”
Ferrero’s campaign for the safety of Nutella obliquely addressed the formation of these suspected carcinogens.
“The palm oil used by Ferrero is safe because it comes from freshly squeezed fruits and is processed at controlled temperatures,” said the company’s purchasing manager Vincenzo Tapella in the television spot (in Italian), according to an English translation by Reuters.
However, the panel’s research was more focused on products aimed at younger consumers.
“The exposure to GE of babies consuming solely infant formula is a particular concern as this is up to ten times what would be considered of low concern for public health,” said Knutsen in the EFSA statement.
Their research also revealed a two-thirds drop in GE levels in palm oils and fats between 2000 and 2014 (before rising again in 2015), which the statement attributes to “voluntary measures” taken by producers.
A Ferrero spokesperson told the website Foodnavigator.com that the company has “requested” palm oils with low levels of contaminants and added, “The oils and fats consequently have significantly lower levels of contaminants than the standard ones available on the market.”
- Panel, E., & Chain, F. (2016). Risks for human health related to the presence of 3- and 2-monochloropropanediol (MCPD), and their fatty acid esters, and glycidyl fatty acid esters in food EFSA Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM). EFSA Journal, 14. https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2016.4426
Banner image of oil palm plantation in Cameroon by John C. Cannon.