Nutella’s manufacturers have hit out at a landmark report that found one of its ingredients to be cancerous.
The chocolate spread relies on palm oil for its smooth texture and considerably long shelf life.
However, a report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) declared it to be more carcinogenic than any other oil, following similar claims by the WHO.
Now, since Nutella’s profits have taken a 3 percent hit, the manufacturer Ferrero has launched a televised campaign, insisting they use palm oil in a way that is not dangerous.
The commercial insists the spread would not be the same without refined palm oil.
It does not mention the other compelling factor: since palm oil is the cheapest oil on the market, a switch in ingredients would cost Ferrero an extra $8-22 million a year.
‘Making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the real product, it would be a step backward,’ Ferrero’s purchasing manager Vincenzo Tapella said.
He features in a TV commercial aired in Italy over the past three months that has drawn criticism from politicians as they call for palm oil to be banned.
The detailed EFSA report, published in May 2016, said palm oil is more dangerous than other vegetable oils when refined at temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius.
High temperatures are used to remove palm oil’s natural red color and neutralize its smell.
This process, however, causes contaminants called glycidyl fatty acid esters (or, GE) to form.
When digested, GE has a tendency to break down and release glycidol, a compound strongly believed to cause tumors.
According to a report by the US National Institutes of Health, oral exposure to glycidol has caused tumors at many different tissue sites in lab mice and lab rats.
However, Ferrero says it uses an industrial process that combines a temperature of just below 200C and extremely low pressure to minimize contaminants.
The process takes longer and costs 20 percent more than high-temperature refining, Ferrero told Reuters.
But it said this had allowed it to bring GE levels so low that scientific instruments find it hard to trace the chemical.
‘The palm oil used by Ferrero is safe because it comes from freshly squeezed fruits and is processed at controlled temperatures,’ Tapella says in the TV ad, which was filmed at the firm’s factory in the northern town of Alba and was accompanied by full-page ads in newspapers carrying the same message.
It is this ‘refining’ process that Nutella’s makers boast about so fiercely on their website’s ‘ingredients’ section.
‘Palm oil is used in Nutella to give the product its creamy texture, as well as to heighten the flavor of its ingredients, thanks to its properties that enable it to have a neutral odor and taste after the refining process,’ the website reads.
‘Furthermore, it is the best ingredient for giving Nutella the right smoothness, guaranteeing its special spreadability,’ it continues.
The description even goes as far as to claim palm oil protects consumers from demonic ‘trans fats’: ‘Above all, avoiding the hydrogenation process that would produce otherwise unhealthy trans fats.’
It concludes: ‘Palm fruit oil also helps to maintain the unique taste of Nutella along its whole shelf life, due to its higher stability to oxidation compared to other vegetable oils.’
EFSA does not have the power to make regulations, though officials will be issuing guidance towards the end of the year.
Measures could include regulations to limit the level of GE (genetic engineering) in food products, but there will not be a ban on the use of palm oil.
The World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization flagged the same potential risk that EFSA had warned of regarding GE, but did not recommend consumers stop eating palm oil.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also has not banned the use of palm oil in food.
For now, Ferrero is taking the opportunity to appeal directly to consumers.
The hazelnut and chocolate spread, one of Italy’s best-known food brands and a popular breakfast treat for children globally, is a dominant voice in the food sector.
Ferrero executives are hoping they can use their considerable influence to win over customers.
Meanwhile rivals are opportunistically advertising themselves as ‘palm oil-free’ – possibly spurring the dent in Nutella’s sales.