Ferrero, the maker of Nutella, has hit back at claims that the palm oil used in their hazelnut and chocolate spreads could cause cancer.
In May, the European Food Standards Authority warned that contaminants found in the edible form of the oil are carcinogenic. He warned that even moderate consumption of these substances poses a risk to children and said that due to a lack of definitive data, no level can be considered safe.
Palm oil can be found in hundreds of well-known food brands, including Cadbury’s chocolate, Clover and even Ben & Jerry’s, but Nutella has so far been hit hard by consumers.
Sales fell 3% in the year through August 2016 as consumers switched from the product to alternatives without palm oil. Coop, the country’s largest supermarket chain, pulled 200 products containing palm oil, but not Nutella, from its shelves in May as a precaution.
In response, Ferrero launched an advertising campaign in an attempt to reassure customers that its products are completely safe.
Ferrero insists the decision to keep palm oil in Nutella, despite safety concerns, is about quality, not cost. The substance is used to give the spread its smooth texture which he says cannot be achieved using other oils. “Making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the actual product, it would be a step backwards,” Vincenzo Tapella, purchasing director of Ferrero, told Reuters.
Substitute oils, derived for example from sunflower or rapeseed, could be used but would increase the cost of manufacturing the product by up to $ 22 million (£ 18 million), according to a Reuters calculation. Ferrero did not confirm the figures. The company was not immediately available for comment.
Cancer fears focus on compounds known as glycidyl fatty acid (GE) esters, which are produced in palm oil when heated above 200 degrees Celsius, as is the case in the processing of many foods.
Dr Helle Knutsen, chair of Contam, EFSA’s expert group that studied palm oil, said in May: “There is sufficient evidence that glycidol is genotoxic and carcinogenic, therefore, the Contam expert group has not set a safe level for GMOs. ”
Contaminants can be found in other vegetable oils, margarines and processed foods, but EFSA has found that they are produced in higher, potentially dangerous amounts in palm oil.
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The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have also expressed concerns about GE, but have not issued warnings regarding its consumption.
A Ferrero spokesperson said: “The health and safety of consumers is a top and top priority for Ferrero.
“The presence of contaminants in food products, analyzed by EFSA, depends on the oils and fats used as well as the processes to which they are subjected.
“It is for this reason that Ferrero has for some time carefully selected raw materials and industrial processes that limit their presence to minimum levels, in full compliance with the parameters defined by EFSA.
This is not the first time that palm oil has sparked controversy. In November, Amnesty International expressed concern that global companies such as Colgate-Palmolive, Kellogg’s, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser and Unilever were using palm oil produced by children as young as eight. years old, working in dangerous conditions on Indonesian plantations.
Children were carrying bags of palm fruit weighing up to 25 kg, for the Singapore-based company Wilmar, according to Amnesty.
Palm oil has long been linked to environmental degradation, including massive deforestation causing the loss of critical habitats for endangered species such as orangutans. Ferrero says all the oil it uses comes from sustainable sources certified by the Sustainable Palm Oil Roundtable, a body set up by major producers and buyers to set standards and self-regulate the industry.
The RSPO has been criticized by many non-governmental organizations for saying that its standards are too low and its enforcement too weak. Greenpeace said in its 2013 “Certify Destruction” report that the RSPO standards allow free cutting down of virgin forests to make way for plantations.