The Dangers of Palm Oil: Why Nutella is Being Removed From Shelves

The Dangers of Palm Oil: Why Nutella is Being Removed From Shelves

By Heidi Reidel

Supermarkets in Italy, including the country’s biggest supermarket chain, Coop, have removed popular hazelnut spread, Nutella, from their shelves. The reason? Recent studies have linked refined palm oil, which is used in Nutella and various other food and cosmetic products, with cancer.

Nutella Fights Back

Nutella maker, Ferrero, launched an advertising campaign in response to reassure customers that their product is safe. The company insists on keeping their recipe the same, claiming that “making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the real product, it would be a step backward,” according to Fererro’s purchasing manager, Vincenzo Tapella. The smooth texture Tapella is referring to could be achieved by more expensive oils like sunflower or rapeseed but would increase the cost of production by as much as $22 million.

The Dangers of Palm Oil

The danger of palm oil appears to only occur after it has been refined or oxidized, which is when it has been heated above 200 degrees Celsius. This is done in culinary processes to burn off its natural red coloring and neutralize its odor. Ferrero asserts that their oil is heated only to safe levels. In its fresh state, studies indicate that there are actually health benefits to consuming palm oil, such as a reduction in the risk of arterial thrombosis and atherosclerosis, inhibition of cholesterol biosynthesis and platelet aggregation, and reduction in blood pressure.

According to a report done by the European Food Safety Authority, palm oil contains high levels of glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD). Dr. Helle Knutsen, chair of the CONTAM panel, claims there is sufficient evidence that GE is genotoxic and carcinogenic and therefore did not set a safe level for it. GE is particularly dangerous to the health of children and infants, which is what spurred Italy to remove it from shelves, saying the product was geared toward children. Studies found that repeated repeated exposure to GE increases the incidence of tumors in rats and mice. It was also found that 3-MCPD exposure in animals was toxic to their kidneys and and posed risks to the male reproductive system. There was not enough data on 2-MCPD to make a reliable conclusion on its health impacts.

Research co-funded by Worldwide Cancer Research studied the presence of a protein called CD36 and its effect on metastasis (cancer spread). CD36 was present on metastatic cancer cells from patients with a range of different tumors. Although all the cells were able to grow and develop tumors, only the tumors produced by CD36 cells went on to spread around the body. CD36 sits in the cell membrane and moves fatty acids from outside of the cell into the middle. Direct stimulation of these cells with a saturated fatty acid called palmitic acid, which is found in high levels in palm oil,  increased their ability to spread.

Beyond Health Concerns

Palm oil’s controversy goes beyond health concerns. Many have taken issue with global firms using palm oil produced by children as young as eight in Indonesia. In Singapore, children were found to be carrying sacks of palm fruit weighing up to 55lbs. Palm oil has also been linked to environmental degradation, including mass deforestation and the loss of critical habitats for endangered species such as orangutans. Ferrero says all of its palm oil comes from sustainable sources; however, the organization providing that certification, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, has been criticized for low standards and weak enforcement.

Research is still in its development as far as the effects of palm oil on humans. Nutella is certainly not the only product on the market containing palm oil but because of its notoriety and its ineffective efforts to assure the public of its safety, it is receiving the most backlash. Time will tell if the United States follows Italy’s lead and removes Nutella from supermarket shelves.

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