Ferrero, the maker of Nutella, has hit back at claims that palm oil used in their hazelnut and chocolate spreads could cause cancer.
In May, the European Food Standards Authority warned that a contaminant found in the oil’s edible form is carcinogenic. It warned that even moderate consumption of the substance represented a risk to children and said no level could be considered safe.
Several retailers in Italy, including the country’s biggest supermarket chain, Coop, have boycotted the spread as a precaution.
In response, Ferrero has launched an advertising campaign in an attempt to reassure customers that its products are safe.
Ferrero insists that the decision to keep palm oil in Nutella, despite safety fears, is about quality, not cost. The substance is used to give the spread its smooth texture which it says can’t be achieved by using other oils. “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 told Reuters.
Substitute oils, derived for example from sunflowers or rapeseed, could be used but would increase the cost of making the product by as much as $22m (£18m), a calculation by Reuters found. Ferrero has not confirmed the figures. The company was not immediately available for comment.
The cancer fears centre on a compound known as glycidyl fatty acid ester (GE), which is produced in palm oil when it is heated above 200 degrees celsius, as it is in the processing of for many foods.
Dr Helle Knutsen, chair of CONTAM, the EFSA panel that investigated palm oil, said in May: “There is sufficient evidence that glycidol is genotoxic and carcinogenic, therefore the CONTAM Panel did not set a safe level for GE.”
The contaminant can be found in some other vegetable oils, margarines and processed foods but the EFSA found that it was produced in higher, potentially dangerous, amounts in palm oil.
The World Health Organisation and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation have also expressed concerns about GE but have stopped short of issuing warnings about its consumption.