Does Palm Oil in Nutella Cause Cancer?

Nutella spread

 Eddy Zecchinon / EyeEm / Getty Images

Nutella is high in fat and added sugar, which means it has never had much of a reputation as a health food. Despite its lack of nutritional value, however, fans of the beloved chocolatey hazelnut spread have been using it on toast, croissants, pancakes, waffles, and more since the early 1960s.

In recent years, though, questions have emerged about Nutella that have nothing to do with its high sugar content, but rather with claims that it causes cancer. The second ingredient in Nutella is palm oil (the first is sugar), which has been linked to cancer when refined at high temperatures.

The Nutella controversy started in 2016 when the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a detailed report on the potential toxicity of certain fatty acids in palm oil. According to the report, during the heating process, one of the fatty acids in palm oil produces a dangerous compound called glycidol, which is considered carcinogenic.

The EFSA report generated widespread public concern over whether palm oil-containing foods like Nutella can cause cancer, and many consumers and food companies began boycotting the product. But the report did not specify Nutella as a product to avoid, and any studies linking palm oil to cancer have been animal-based. Despite the potential health risks associated with palm oil, it's still safe to enjoy Nutella in moderation.

What Is Palm Oil?

In 2020, palm oil production was valued at $3.2 billion dollars in the United States and more than $61 billion dollars globally due to increasing market demand. Palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit of the African oil palm tree Elaeis guineensis (not to be confused with the similarly-named palm kernel oil, which comes from the fruit’s kernels). It is a key ingredient in many common foods and household products.

Palm oil is one of the few vegetable fats that is semi-solid at room temperature, which is what gives Nutella its trademark spreadable creaminess. Like all oils, palm oil is 100% fat, but unlike some healthier options, it contains high amounts of saturated fat.

“The fat in palm oil is about 50% saturated, making it higher in saturated fat than other common oils that we consume,” says dietitian Kris Sollid, RD, senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council. “For context, 15% of the fat in soybean oil is saturated, olive oil is about 14%, and canola oil is around 7%,” he says.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a single tablespoon of palm oil has almost 14 grams of fat, nearly half of which comes from saturated fat.

Health Risks of Palm Oil

The EFSA report declined to set any safe level of consumption for palm oil. It indicated that two other fatty acids produced by palm oil, known as 3-MCPD and 2-MCPD, were also found to be “a potential concern for health.” Despite these claims, however, other scientists have argued that rigorous research is still lacking. For instance, a 2019 review published in Nutrients states there is no evidence associating palm oil consumption with an increased risk of cancer in humans.

The studies linking glycidol to cancer have largely been conducted on animals, not humans. While animal studies can help make predictions for human outcomes, the results don't always translate to empirical evidence for human health.

Nonetheless, palm oil garnered an unfavorable distinction as a potential carcinogen. But according to experts, the real nutritional downside of palm oil is its saturated fat content. “Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol—the ‘bad’ kind we want to keep low—and also raises our blood triglycerides," says Sollid. "Having high LDL and triglycerides increases your risk for heart disease.” 

The USDA recommends limiting your intake of saturated fat to 10% of daily calories or less. To reduce your risk of heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends limiting your intake to just 5% to 6% of daily calories.

There are 9 calories in a single gram of fat, which means that 1 tablespoon of palm oil contains just over 60 calories from saturated fat. On a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet, that's roughly 3% of your total daily calories, which is anywhere from 30% to 50% of the recommended daily intake for saturated fat.

Despite the high saturated fat content of palm oil, some experts indicate that it has “a more favorable fatty acid composition” than palm kernel oil and even coconut oil, and is likely a healthier choice than butter.

Palm Oil in Nutella

The EFSA report had stated that no amount of glycidol was considered safe, which is why it was easy to make the association that palm oil consumption in products like Nutella is dangerous. However, the report also indicated that carcinogenic compounds are only created when heating palm oil (and other vegetable oils) at high temperatures—about 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit) or above.

According to Ferrero, the Italian confectionery company that manufactures Nutella, it processes its palm oil for Nutella at a heat level “in line with the new thresholds” recommended by the EFSA. This means the potential for creating cancer-causing levels of glycidol is unlikely.

In early 2017, Ferrero had defended the use of its palm oil as a primary ingredient in Nutella and launched an advertising campaign to reassure consumers that it was safe for consumption. (According to Reuters, Nutella makes up one-fifth of Ferrero's sales, and swapping palm oil with any other ingredient would compromise its flavor.)

Since Nutella’s recipe is proprietary, it’s hard to know exactly how much palm oil goes into a single jar—or a single serving. However, based on the nutrition information provided on the manufacturer's website, of the 80 calories in a one-tablespoon serving (15 grams), just over 40 calories come from fat with about 14 calories from saturated fat. However, all of the fat isn’t from palm oil alone.

Hazelnuts (the next ingredient on the list) also contribute fat, so it’s safe to assume that for every one tablespoon of Nutella you eat, you’ll take in less than a half-tablespoon of palm oil. (By comparison, hazelnuts are a source of healthy fat and contain essential vitamins and minerals.)

Palm Oil in Other Products

It's unclear why Nutella became the epicenter of the palm oil debate, as many other common foods also contain palm oil. When the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of trans fats by American food manufacturers in 2015, many companies turned to palm oil as a low-cost alternative to hydrogenated oils.

A quick glance at labels on ice creams, baked goods, crackers, and shortenings reveals that palm oil is used in many typical processed foods. It’s also common in household cleaners like soaps, shampoos, and detergents, as well as cosmetics such as lipstick and eyeshadow. It is highly likely that most people eat or use palm oil every day.

Interestingly, the EFSA report states that, for most consumers, “the main sources of exposure” to potentially harmful fatty acids in palm oil are margarine, pastries, and cakes—not necessarily Nutella.

Nutella is no more hazardous than any other common foods or everyday household products that contain just as much (if not more) palm oil.

Is Palm Oil Bad for the Environment?

While it's probably safe for human consumption and use, palm oil is widely known to be detrimental to the environment. Palm oil production has involved heavy deforestation and has threatened many species of animals living within the forests where the palm oil tree originates, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

In response, lobbyists and activists have been pressing manufacturers to harvest palm oil sustainably without deforestation. For this reason, many consumers and food companies avoid products with palm oil altogether in an effort to raise awareness and play their part in eliminating the destruction of forests and wildlife.

According to Ferrero, the company is opposed to deforestation, and Nutella is manufactured with 100% certified sustainable palm oil.

A Word From Verywell

If you enjoy a dollop of Nutella on your morning pancakes or add it to your favorite dessert recipes every now and then, the current research indicates that it is probably safe for you to do so. With refining temperatures kept at safe levels, the palm oil in Nutella isn’t likely to contain carcinogens. It's probably more important to focus on the bigger picture when it comes to cancer and diet.

Remember that Nutella is a processed food containing a fair amount of added sugar, which means you'll want to limit your intake, in general. While there isn't any research to show that palm oil specifically can cause cancer in humans, there is a ton of evidence linking added sugar consumption to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and even some forms of cancer.

As Sollid notes, “Cancer risk can increase when unhealthy eating patterns are continued over long periods of time.” As a general rule for overall health, it's a smart idea to focus on a balanced diet filled with fresh, nutrient-dense whole foods. This doesn't mean you should eliminate processed foods like Nutella entirely, but rather enjoy them in modest amounts as an occasional treat.

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Article Sources
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