Fears over the presence of a cancer-causing contaminant in palm oil did not deter Italian confectionery firm Ferrero from using the edible oil as ingredient in its best-selling hazelnut and chocolate spread Nutella.
Process Contaminant In Palm Oil Can Damage DNA, Cause Cancer
In May last year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) raised potential health concerns over consumption of palm oil and some processed foods following results of a study that looked into the process contaminants in vegetable oils and food products.
The process contaminants glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD) are not intentionally added into food products but are formed during processing of food. In the case of producing edible oils, these substances form when refining vegetable oils at high temperatures of about 200 degrees Celsius.
EFSA revealed that the highest levels of GE, 3-MCPD, and 2-MCPD were found in palm oil and palm fats. GE though is of particular concern as evidence from animal studies show it is genotoxic, which means it can damage the DNA, and carcinogenic.
Food Companies Boycott Palm Oil
EFSA did not recommend that consumers stop consumption of palm oil but some food companies already started boycotting the product as a precautionary measure.
Italy's largest supermarket chain Coop boycotted palm oil. The country's biggest baker, Barilla, also removed it as an ingredient and started to use "palm oil-free" labels. Italy's farming association Coldiretti and an online food magazine also asked all food firms to boycott palm oil following the results of the EFSA study.
Ferrero Assures Public About Safety Of Nutella Chocolate Spread
Ferrero was not deterred by calls to boycott palm oil. The Nutella maker has in fact launched an advertising campaign to give assurance to the public about the safety of Nutella, which uses palm oil as a key ingredient.
Nutella, which accounts for about a fifth of Ferrero's sales, relies on palm oil to achieve its smooth texture and shelf life. Ferrero said that using other substitutes such as sunflower oil will change the chocolate spread's character.
"Making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the real product, it would be a step backward," said Ferrero's purchasing manager Vincenzo Tapella.
As for the high temperatures associated with the formation of the carcinogenic contaminant GE in edible oils, Tapella in a TV ad said that the palm oil they use comes from freshly squeezed fruits and the processing is done under controlled temperatures.
Ferrero said that it uses an industrial process that combines a temperature of just below 200 degrees Celsius and extremely low pressure to minimize the formation of contaminants.
Ferrero said that although the process takes longer and is 20 percent more costly compared with high-temperature refining, it allows to bring down GE to levels so low scientific instruments can hardly find traces of the chemical.
EFSA has not yet issued a statement on the potential risks associated with refining palm oil at lower temperatures.