Everyone’s favorite breakfast spread is under fire again. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said last year that palm oil, the ingredient that gives Nutella its smooth texture, could come with a cancer risk. Now Italian company Ferrero, makers of Nutella, are fighting back, even as other big-name companies like Barilla say they’ve ceased using palm oil.
EFSA said in May 2016 that palm oil, when refined at temperatures higher than 200 degrees Celsius, produces more of a contaminant called glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE) than other vegetable oils. They said there is sufficient evidence glycidol – what they describe as GE’s parent compound – is carcinogenic, or cancer-causing.
Ferrero has a high stake in convincing the public of palm oil’s safety; Nutella brings in about one fifth of their sales, according to Reuters. Palm oil is also cheaper than other oils, costing about $800 per ton compared with $845 for sunflower oil or $920 for rapeseed oil. As Ferrero goes through around 185,000 metric tons of palm oil every year, Reuters calculated they would spend an extra $8 to $22 million yearly if they switched to another oil. Ferrero would not give Reuters a comment on those statistics.
The company launched a TV commercial that’s played in Italy for the last three months, featuring Ferrero purchasing manager Vincenzo Tapella, who told Reuters, “Making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the real product, it would be a step backward.” Some politicians have criticized the ad, saying it misleads consumers on environmental and health risks.
Ferrero argues they process palm oil at temperatures just under 200 degrees Celsius to lower GE levels to the point where scientific instruments can barely trace the contaminant. They also claim to purchase palm oil approved by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.