All good things seem to be bad for me. That’s what you’re probably thinking, especially now that modern research suggests that the delicious, creamy, chocolate spread may be cancerous. So, before you spread some on your toast tomorrow morning (or eat another spoonful– who are we kidding? ), let’s delve into what’s putting Nutella on your watch-list and why.
What is Nutella?
In the months following World War II, a young confectioner named Pietro Ferrero had the idea to make a hazelnut-chocolate spread that was accessible and affordable to all. This was a novel idea considering chocolate was, as his grandson Giovanni Ferrero said, “so expensive, it was really high-end, nobody could afford it, at least in Italy.”
Pietro’s initial product, Pasta Gianduja, was not spreadable. Rather, he produced it in loaves wrapped in foil and you would have to slice it like bread. The game-changer, however, was first introduced in 1964 under the name Supercrema – the first accessibly-priced hazelnut-chocolate spread.
It wasn’t until Pietro’s son, Michele Ferrero, got involved that Supercrema became Nutella as we recognize it today. Over fifty years later, people still recognize the brand, purchase the product, and include it in their morning routines.
But despite the Ferrero family’s incredible story, the Ferrero company has been on the receiving end of an onslaught of cancer-causing claims about Nutella that may lead its lovers to avoid the product.
What’s So Bad About It?
Nutella contains seven ingredients and they “choose only the freshest raw materials, carefully selected according to a sustainable sourcing and a great attention to their quality.” Here are the ingredients:
- Palm Oil
The current concern regarding Nutella’s ingredients lies with number two – palm oil. Palm oil comes from the oil palm tree’s fruit, which grows in tropical regions and is reddish in color and olive-sized. It’s the ingredient that helps give Nutella its picture-perfect smoothness, but it’s also an ingredient that has been linked to cancer. One of the biggest Italian grocery chains, Coop, has removed the spread from its shelves, as a precaution to mitigate any possible risks associated with Nutella. Chains in the U.K. and North America, for example, haven’t made any changes just yet.
Health Risks of Palm Oil
While there does seem to be some benefits to palm oil, it can have some serious health effects:
- High in calories
- Can cause toxicity
- Could increase cholesterol levels
- Can cause weight gain
- Cancer linked (via carcinogenic components)
Studies: Palm Oil Components Linked to Cancer
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In a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) report about process contaminants in vegetable oils and foods, researchers found glycerol-based process contaminants in palm oil. According to the EFSA, one study suggested that contaminants such as glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE) pose potential health risks for average consumers in all young age groups and high consumers in all age groups.
GE is generally perceived as a carcinogenic component. In the case of palm oil, the likelihood of its carcinogenicity is increased when producers refine it at temperatures above 392 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius). Palm oil also contains the highest levels of GE.
However, it is what Glycidyl Fatty Acid Esters become in your body that is the real worry. The human digestion process breaks down GE in your system, which releases glycidol into your system. Organizations including the International Agency for Research on Cancer have labeled glycidol as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”[12,13]
While there are grounds for concern and reasons enough for continued studies, much of the research regarding GE’s carcinogenicity has used rodents. Furthermore, scientists said that “no relevant toxicity data were identified” when analyzing their human subjects. But due to the fact that “there is sufficient evidence that glycidol is genotoxic and carcinogenic…[the EFSA] did not set a safe level for GE.”
In all of this, however, the EFSA has not recommended that people stop eating Nutella and has acknowledged that further study is necessary to assess human risk. It is important to note, too, that although the EFSA does not have the legal capacity to make regulations, the European Commission is reviewing the issue.
In a Reuter’s article, the Ferrero company shared that “it uses an industrial process that combines a temperature of just below 200C and extremely low pressure to minimize contaminants.”
Safety is our top priority. We carefully select raw materials & use production processes w/ strict quality criteria to ensure safe products.
— Nutella (@NutellaUSA) January 13, 2017
The process Ferrero uses “takes longer and costs 20 percent more than high-temperature refining,” and has brought GE levels down to the point where scientific instruments have trouble tracing it. Ferrero’s purchasing manager Vincenzo Tapella said, “Making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the real product, it would be a step backward.”
Interestingly, the EFSA declined to comment when asked about the possible risk of refining palm oil at lower temperatures.
Other Foods to Avoid
Here is a list of some other common foods or brands that use palm oil:[23,24]
- Cadbury’s chocolate
- Ben & Jerry’s
- Instant noodles
- Packaged bread
Whether you’re going to stop or continue eating the popular spread, why don’t you try this 15-minute healthy, homemade “Nutella” recipe. There are other nut butter recipes inside, too. Go nuts!
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