Fans of the beloved chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella were stunned by recent reports that one of the product's key ingredients could pose a cancer risk.

By Gillie Houston
Updated May 25, 2017
Credit: © iStockphoto

Fans of the beloved chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella were stunned by recent reports that one of the product's key ingredients could pose a cancer risk. Now, Ferrero, the Italian confectionary company who produces the sugary treat, are pushing back against these claims and insisting their use of the controversial ingredient is here to stay.

Though the potential dangers associated with palm oil — key to Nutella's shelf life and characteristically smooth texture—first emerged last spring, a Reuters report published this week sent Nutella lovers into panic mode.

Last May, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published findings that claimed palm oil generated more of a potentially cancer-causing contaminant — known as GE — than other varieties of vegetable oil when refined above 200 degrees Celcius. Though the EFSA didn't make an official recommendation to refrain from consuming the ingredient, the warning was enough to alarm Italian retailers and consumers.

Soon after the warning was issued, Italy's largest supermarket chain, Coop, and baker, Barilla, eliminated the use of palm oil in all of their own-brand products, putting a small dent in the $44 billion international palm oil industry. And though many products utilize the ingredient, due to its massive popularity, Nutella has been the primary focus of the palm oil backlash.

While many Italians have turned away from the product, Ferrero has taken a highly public stand in defense of the oil. "Making Nutella without palm oil would produce and inferior substitute for the real product," says Ferrero purchasing manager Vincenzo Tapella. In spite of the EFSA's warning, as well as similar warnings by The World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Ferrero insists that its unique industrial process of heating the palm oil to just below 200 degrees Celcius brings the GE levels so low that only mere traces of the offensive chemical are still present.

In addition to being necessary to Nutella's recipe, the oil is also necessary to the company financially. Each year, Ferrero uses around 185,000 tons of palm oil, which at $800 a ton, is the cheapest vegetable oil money can buy. By Reuters' calculation, even the nearest alternatives, such as sunflower oil at $845 a ton, could cost the company an extra $8-22 million annually.

Despite the warnings put forth by numerous health agencies about the cancer risk factors of palm oil, Nutella's global sales have been unaffected by the controversy, and continue to grow five to six percent every year. And though the company saw a brief three percent drop in Italian sales by the end of August 2016, those sales rebounded four percent in the final 4 months of the year.

Still, as the news of the palm oil controversy sweeps the rest of the world, there's no saying how the revelation could impact Nutella's international sales—or presence at Eataly's $106 million culinary destination.