By Kim Robson:
Palm oil is extracted from the fruits and kernels of palm plants, and is a highly valued vegetable fat in food production because it makes things easy to spread. It’s used worldwide in baked goods, snack foods, frozen foods, and candy (usually as a vegetable oil); and is added to shortening and margarines. Unfortunately, much of the world’s production of palm oil is environmentally destructive and unsustainable, threatening rain forests as well as endangered wildlife.
Now, the insanely popular chocolate-and-hazelnut spread Nutella has been outed as containing palm oil. Its maker, Ferrero, says palm oil gives Nutella its famously creamy texture. You can almost hear the collective cries of fans’ despair from space: “NOOOOOOOO!!! Not my Nutella!”
The Italian confectioner says that palm oil is the best ingredient for “guaranteeing its special spreadability and, above all, avoiding the hydrogenation process that would produce otherwise unhealthy trans fats,” according to the Nutella website.
Last May, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) delivered a scientific opinion that current levels of glycerol-based process contaminants found in palm oil are a “potential health concern” when improperly processed. The European Union risk assessor produces scientific opinions and advice to guide European policies and legislation. The contaminants, created when vegetable oils are heated to high temperatures and then refined, are considered both genotoxic (damaging to DNA) and carcinogenic. Of all vegetable oils, palm oil was found to have the highest levels of these contaminants.
The EFSA’s conclusion was that at high levels of exposure, the contaminants are a health hazard for all age groups, particularly infants, toddlers, and children under the age of ten. Doug Boucher, an ecologist and scientific adviser for the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed out that “EFSA statement was based on the existence of contaminants in palm oil, not the properties of palm oil itself.”
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has designated palm oil as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). The FDA also authorizes its use as a cocoa butter substitute when processed under specific production and heating guidelines. “There is no U.S. ban in place regarding the use of palm oil in foods,” said Megan McSeveney, a spokesperson for the FDA. She added that palm oil has a long history of use in food products worldwide and in the U.S. specifically.
The EFSA studies didn’t go unanswered by Ferrero. They launched an ad campaign last October, explaining that their palm oil is sustainable and is heated only to safe temperatures that do not result in contaminants. “Ferrero wants to assure its consumers that Nutella and other Ferrero products that contain palm oil are safe,” said Beth M. Kotran, general counsel for Ferrero U.S.A. Inc.
In addition, Kotran added, Ferrero “has been able to significantly reduce the levels of contaminants in its palm oil compared to conventional palm oils available on the market, similar to the levels found in other vegetable oils that have been processed properly, in line with EFSA’s parameters. This is due to careful harvesting, from the squeezing in the quickest possible time, to the processes and manufacturing at the lowest possible temperatures.”
Nutella isn’t the only product to gain negative publicity recently over palm oil. Others include
- Girl Scout cookies
- Pop Tarts
- Kit Kat candy bars
- Some Ben & Jerry’s ice creams
- Cheerios and Nutri-Grain cereals
- Some of Target’s Archer Farms branded foods
According to Amnesty International, in 2016, the majority of palm oil is imported from India, the European Union and China (which imported a combined 20 million metric tons). Indonesia and Malaysia produce about 85% of the world’s palm oil, with the rest coming from Thailand, Colombia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and Ecuador. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that world palm oil production 2016-17 will total 64.5 million tons.
So, is it okay to enjoy Nutella or not? Ferrero maintains that Nutella uses 100% certified sustainable palm oil, meeting the standards that qualify it as a Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) that coincides with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (ROSP) criteria. It’s also segregated, meaning that the palm oil used in Nutella is kept separated from conventional palm oil along the entire supply chain.