Why Do Some Say Nutella Causes Cancer?

According to a number of very concerned online posts—and a handful of news stories—a key ingredient in Nutella has been linked to cancer. But is there truth to the claims that the second ingredient listed on Nutella’s label is actually causing cancer? Or is this another case of food scapegoating, in which a villainized ingredient might not actually be as scary as it sounds?

It turns out that the rumor about Nutella causing cancer is less about Nutella and more focused on one of the ingredients in Nutella: palm oil. Learn why this rumor has surfaced and why you can still enjoy Nutella in moderation without worry.

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is the ingredient in Nutella that is causing the cancer-link rumor. This 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). Palm oil is one of the few vegetable fats that is semi-solid at room temperature, hence Nutella’s spreadable creaminess.

Like all oils, palm oil is 100 percent fat, but unlike some healthier options, it contains high amounts of saturated fat.

“The fat in palm oil is about 50 percent saturated, making it higher in saturated fat than other common oils that we consume,” says dietitian Kris Sollid, RD, Senior Director at the International Food Information Council. “For context, 15 percent of the fat in soybean oil is saturated, olive oil is about 14 percent, and canola oil is around seven percent.” A single tablespoon of palm oil supplies about 35 percent of your recommended daily intake of saturated fat.

Origins of the Controversy

While Nutella has never had a reputation as a health food, consumers have been spreading it on toast and croissants for years, and there hasn't been concern over a link to cancer until recently. So how did the controversy around Nutella and cancer arise?

It all started in May of 2016 when the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a report on the fatty acids within palm oil. The report looked specifically at the byproducts these acids produce when refined at high temperatures. During the heating process, one of palm oil’s fatty acids produces a compound called glycidol.

Due to “sufficient evidence” that glycidol is “genotoxic and carcinogenic,” the EFSA declined to set any safe level of consumption. Two other fatty acids produced by palm oil, called 3-MCPD and 2-MCPD, were also found to be “a potential concern for health.” Once this word got out—and consumers connected the dots to palm oil as Nutella’s second ingredient—online pandemonium ensued, with many people swearing off the spread completely.

How Much Palm Oil Is in Nutella?

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 label, of the 200 calories in a serving of two tablespoons, 100 calories of them come from 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 two tablespoons of Nutella you eat, you’ll take in less than one tablespoon of palm oil. Since the EFSA says there’s no safe level of glycidol, should you still be concerned?

Is Palm Oil in Nutella Dangerous?

Though it may sound like eating palm oil is very dangerous, there are a few mitigating factors that went underreported in the midst of the uproar around Nutella and cancer. First, carcinogenic compounds are only created when palm oil is heated at high temperatures—about 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit) or above.

Ferrero, Nutella’s parent company, states that it processes its palm oil at a heat level “in line with the new thresholds” recommended by the EFSA—so it’s likely not creating the carcinogenic glycidol levels that caused all the concern in the first place.

It’s worth noting that the studies connecting glycidol to cancer have largely been conducted on animals, not humans.

So even if Nutella’s palm oil were processed at these high temperatures, human studies are unfounded. While animal studies can be valuable in making predictions for people, they don’t always translate to absolute truths for human health.

Palm Oil in Other Products

It's unclear exactly why Nutella seems to have been the primary target of palm oil panic. The jarred spread is far from the only common food that contains palm oil. Now that the FDA has ordered the elimination of trans fats in the American food supply, many manufacturers have turned to palm oil as a low-cost alternative to the hydrogenated oils previously used in a number of products.

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

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

In other words, there is no reason to point a finger at Nutella as more dangerous than any other foods or products that contain just as much (if not more) palm oil.

Environmental Concern

In addition, palm oil is now 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 originates, particularly in Africa and South America.

Now, however, more and more people are making the push for manufacturers to harvest palm out without deforestation. For this reason, many people avoid products with palm oil altogether in an effort to raise awareness and play their part in eliminating the destruction of forests and wildlife.

The Bigger Health Concern

Though palm oil may have gotten a bad reputation as cancer-causing, it actually poses another health risk that is probably more deserving of concern. The real nutritional downside of palm oil, says Sollid, is its saturated fat content. “Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol—the ‘bad’ kind we want to keep low—and also raises our blood triglycerides," she explains. "Having high LDL and triglycerides increases your risk for heart disease.” 

Still, despite palm oil’s high sat-fat content, according to Harvard nutrition experts, it has “a more favorable fatty acid composition” than its trendy counterpart coconut oil and is “probably a better choice than butter.”

Conclusion

If you enjoy dolloping Nutella on your morning pancakes or drizzling it over ice cream, you probably don’t need to stop. With refining temperatures kept safely low, the palm oil in Nutella isn’t likely to contain carcinogens. It's far more important to focus on the big picture when it comes to cancer and diet.

As Sollid notes, “Cancer risk can increase when unhealthy eating patterns are continued over long periods of time.” So enjoying Nutella in moderation is probably not an urgent cause for concern. As a rule for your overall health, it is best to focus on fresh and unprocessed foods. This doesn't mean you should eliminate Nutella, but rather, enjoy in modest amounts.

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