Nutella Sparks Cancer Concerns -- What to Know Before Freaking Out


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Fans of this chocolate and hazelnut spread might be wondering if they should put down the spoon and find a new snack, as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) announced that foods which contain palm oil, a key ingredient in Nutella, may cause cancer. But before you toss the beloved comfort food in the trash, let's look at what we know so far.

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Just what makes palm oil dangerous? When it's heated above 200 degrees Celsius, as it is in the processing of many foods, it produces compounds known as glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE).

"There is sufficient evidence that glycidol is genotoxic and carcinogenic," Dr. Helle Knutsen, chair of Contam, the EFSA panel that investigated palm oil, explained in May, according to the Independent. "Therefore the Contam panel did not set a safe level for GE."

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So why doesn't the manufacturer, Ferrero, just remove the potentially hazardous ingredient and swap in something else? Because it wouldn't taste the same. Vincenzo Tapella, Ferrero's purchasing manager, explained the reason to Reuters:

"Making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the real product, it would be a step backward," he said.

Any cook or baker who's tried to swap ingredients in a recipe knows exactly what Tapella is talking about. Additional food for thought is the impact that switch could have on pricing. According to a calculation made by Reuters, moving to pricier substitute oils, like sunflower or rapeseed, could jack up the cost of making the spread anywhere from $8 to $22 million annually.

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Further, according to Reuters, Tapella says that the palm oil in Nutella is processed below 200 degrees celsius and uses extremely low pressure to minimize contaminants. Additionally, the process takes longer, which comes at a cost of 20 percent above high-temperature refining. But this process has allowed Ferrero to bring GE to such low levels that the chemical has become hard to trace by scientific instruments.

While the EFSA has issued its warning, the US Food and Drug Administration's Megan McSeveney confirmed there is no US ban in place regarding the use of palm oil in foods.

We asked a nutritionist to weigh in on the potential hazards of consuming this controversial oil, which has raised the ire of Amnesty International for its child labor practices and environmental groups for its sourcing.

"Nutella is a treat, not a staple food, and should be treated that way, meaning -- eat it in moderation and don't eat it every day," Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert, mom of three, and author of Eating in Color, told CafeMom. "I've made my own chocolate-hazelnut spread, and while delicious, it does not have that super smooth texture and long shelf life that you'll get from Nutella."

The nutritionist adds that if you're someone who eats Nutella daily, you may want to consider making your own version, or purchasing a different product. But, does she serve it in her own home? 

"My kids actually had some this morning in their yogurt -- just a little dollop -- less than the serving size of two tablespoons," she says.

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Though other treasured snacks such as Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Cadbury chocolate also contain palm oil, it seems like Nutella is facing the brunt of the backlash, prompting Ferrero to launch an ad campaign reassuring customers that the products are safe.

"The current issue is over the compounds that form when palm oil is heated," Largeman-Roth notes. "The compounds may be carcinogenic, but it's unclear how much of them you'd have to consume for them to pose a health risk. Palm oil does contain saturated fat, but less than coconut oil, which is hugely popular now and considered to be a healthy ingredient. Nutrition trends come and go, with different products and ingredients being vilified at various times. Right now it's Nutella's turn."
 

Until there's a ban in the US or more information about potential dangers, the old "everything in moderation" might be the best bet. 

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