Nutella is suddenly all over the news due to cancer concerns surrounding its second ingredient, palm oil.
A lab study published in Nature in December 2016 suggested that the oil could make cancer cells more aggressive. In the study, researchers found that cancer cells injected into mice spread more readily if the cells were first treated with palmitic acid, a fatty acid found in palm oil.
This comes after a May announcement from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that palm oil refined at very high temperatures contains toxic contaminants that have been linked to cancer in previous lab and animal studies. Other vegetable oils can contain these substances as well, but palm oil appears to have the highest amounts.
More research is needed, but the EFSA concluded that the substances are a “potential health concern” for children who eat average amounts, and for people of all ages who consume a lot. Until more studies become available, it can't give a recommendation on a safe amount for humans to eat.
Palm oil has been controversial for decades due to outcry over large-scale deforestation, the killing of endangered species and human rights violations committed by certain manufacturers. But there hadn’t been any known health risks serious enough to hurt the $44 billion dollar industry until the EFSA’s announcement. It cast doubt on the safety of not just Nutella, but other kitchen staples that contain palm oil like some white breads, pastries, peanut butters and margarines.
But the fact is, all the research so far on the possible link between palm oil and cancer has been done in animals. No studies have shown a connection in humans. And neither the EFSA, nor other health authorities are moving to ban the use of palm oil. The World Health Organization and United Nations have warned of the potential risk of its toxic contaminants, but haven’t recommended that people avoid palm oil. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to consider the oil safe for use in foods.
Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella, claims that its method for processing palm oil is unique and harmless because they only heat the oil to safe temperatures—not the high temps that produce the contaminants. Ferrero says palm oil is necessary for the product’s “special spreadability" and allows them to avoid using trans fats.
Until the results are in, if you'd like a different snack:
When only a packaged snack will do, remember to read the nutrition facts and ingredients listed on the back label. If there's an ingredient you don't recognize, look it up on Sharecare or the Food and Drug Administration website. Being more aware of labels can help you make smarter food choices and develop healthier eating habits in the long-run.
This content was published on January 12, 2017. It was updated on January 17, 2017.