Lovers of chocolate spread may have been shocked on Wednesday by news that an ingredient in Nutella could potentially cause cancer. Supermarkets in Italy have even begun removing some products from shelves that contain the offending ingredient – processed palm oil. But are people over-reacting or are the risks real?
In May, Coop, Italy’s largest supermarket chain, pulled around 200 of its own-brand products from its shelves, because they contain refined palm oil, which some say may increase the risk of developing cancer. Nutella was not among the products removed.
Processed palm oil is found in chocolate bars, ice cream, sandwich spreads and thousands of other common products. The EFSA expressed particular concern about baby milk formulas containing the carcinogenic compounds.
But the focus has been on Nutella partly because it is such an iconic brand in Italy and partly because, after sales dipped, the spread’s manufacturer, Ferrero, put out television and newspaper adverts in an attempt to reassure people that its product was safe. This appears to have backfired badly.
The EFSA looked at three substances derived from glycodil, which is found in vegetable oils. They are glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD). According to the EFSA study, the contaminants are found in most vegetable oils but palm oil contains particularly high levels.
The EFSA reviewed previous scientific studies and found that repeated exposure to GE increases the incidence of tumours in rats and mice, probably by damaging the genetic information in their cells. Exposure was particularly harmful to children, the agency said.
Nestlé, which makes a number of products with refined palm oil, said it takes the issue seriously and has funded scientific research into how the cancer-causing compounds form. As a result it said it had “significantly reduced levels of MCPD esters” in its products.
The simple answer is to reduce exposure to products containing processed palm oil. The Rainforest Foundation UK provides a guide to palm oil-free products. The EFSA study found that for everyone except babies, the main exposure comes from, pastries, cakes and margarines. Many brands of chocolate also contain refined palm oil.
Advice from public health bodies is vague at present. A spokesperson for the EFSA said that as a risk assessor it is not part of its job to make dietary recommendations. The UK’s Food Standards Agency said that it was working with European partners to agree suitable regulation, in light of the EFSA’s findings. “We advise that consumers eat a healthy, balanced and varied diet to balance the risk,” an FSA spokesperson said.
None of the major supermarkets have currently announced plans to remove any products containing palm oil from the shelves.