Could Nutella really cause cancer? Here’s what you need to know

Ben Chapman wrote . . . . .

Lovers of chocolate spread may have been shocked by news that an ingredient in Nutella could potentially cause cancer. Supermarkets in Italy have even begun removing some products from shelves that contain the offending ingredient – processed palm oil. But are people over-reacting or are the risks real?

Why have Italian supermarkets removed products containing palm oil from their shelves?

In May, Coop, Italy’s largest supermarket chain, pulled around 200 of its own-brand products from its shelves, because they contain refined palm oil, which some say may increase the risk of developing cancer. Nutella was not among the products removed.

Coop said at the time this was a precaution and that it had stopped selling products that were aimed at children, who were deemed at greater risk.

The move followed an opinion from the European Food Safety Authority stating that contaminants created when palm oil is refined are carcinogenic.

What products apart from Nutella contain palm oil?

Processed palm oil is found in chocolate bars, ice cream, sandwich spreads and thousands of other common products. The EFSA expressed particular concern about baby milk formulas containing the carcinogenic compounds.

But the focus has been on Nutella partly because it is such an iconic brand in Italy and partly because, after sales dipped, the spread’s manufacturer, Ferrero, put out television and newspaper adverts in an attempt to reassure people that its product was safe. This appears to have backfired badly.

What is in palm oil that could increase the risk of cancer?

The EFSA looked at three substances derived from glycodil, which is found in vegetable oils. They are glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD).

According to the EFSA study, the contaminants are found in most vegetable oils but palm oil contains particularly high levels.

They are not found in the raw oils but are produced when oils are refined at high temperatures of around 200 degrees celsius, which is a routine part of the process when making processed foods. Palm oil is heated to remove its characteristic smell and deep orange colour.

The EFSA reviewed previous scientific studies and found that repeated exposure to GE increases the incidence of tumours in rats and mice, probably by damaging the genetic information in their cells. Exposure was particularly harmful to children, the agency said.

It found that 3-MCPD was toxic to the animals’ kidneys and posed risks to the male reproductive system. There is not enough data on 2-MCPD to make a reliable conclusion on its health impacts, the EFSA said.

What have manufacturers done to mitigate the risks to consumers?

A spokesperson for Ferrero said the company selects raw materials and industrial processes that minimise the contaminants. “The health and safety of consumers is an absolute and first priority for Ferrero and we confirm that Ferrero products are safe”, the company said.

Nestlé, which makes a number of products with refined palm oil, said it takes the issue seriously and has funded scientific research into how the cancer-causing compounds form. As a result it said it had “significantly reduced levels of MCPD esters” in its products.

Why don’t manufacturers just use a safer oil?

The simple answer seems to be money. Substitute oils, derived for example from sunflowers or rapeseed, could be used but would increase the cost of the product’s ingredients. A calculation by Reuters estimated that Ferrero would need to spend as much as $22m per year (£18m), more per year. Ferrero has not confirmed the figures.

There would also be potentially huge added costs associated with changing the recipe to ensure that it remains as true to the previous version as possible, as well as with updating manufacturing processes and equipment and sourcing new suppliers of different ingredients.

A Ferrero spokesperson said: “Palm oil is the best option to ensure that the product has the right consistency and structure, and does not interfere with the characteristic flavours of the other ingredients.”

The company said using palm oil means it avoids using a fat which needs to be hydrogenated, producing harmful “trans fats”. It also hailed the environmental benefits of palm oil which it claims uses 5 times less land than alternatives.

What should I do to minimise the risks?

The simple answer is to reduce exposure to products containing processed palm oil. The Rainforest Foundation UK provides a guide to palm oil-free products.

The EFSA study found that for everyone except babies, the main exposure comes from, pastries, cakes and margarines. Many brands of chocolate also contain refined palm oil.

Advice from public health bodies is vague at present. A spokesperson for the EFSA said that as a risk assessor it is not part of its job to make dietary recommendations. The UK’s Food Standards Agency said that it was working with European partners to agree suitable regulation, in light of the EFSA’s findings. “We advise that consumers eat a healthy, balanced and varied diet to balance the risk,” an FSA spokesperson said.

None of the major supermarkets have currently announced plans to remove any products containing palm oil from the shelves.

Source: The Independent

Thai-style Spicy Soup with Yam and Lentil


1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 Tbsp Thai curry paste
2 medium-sized yam, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large orange-fleshed sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2/3 cup red lentils
4 cups low-sodium vegetable stock
1 cup light coconut milk
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp chopped cilantro or pea shoots, for garnish (optional)


  1. Heat olive oil over medium heat in large stockpot. Add onion and stir until onion is soft, about 3 to 5 minutes.
  2. Add curry paste and cook for 1 minute more.
  3. Add potatoes, lentils and stock and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a slow simmer for about 20 minutes, or until lentils are cooked and potatoes are soft. Stir in coconut milk and gently heat through.
  4. Season with ground pepper and ladle into bowls, topped with cilantro or pea shoots for a decorative garnish. Serve hot with toasted pita triangles or crackers.

Makes 4 servings.

Source: Sage magazine

In Pictures: Dishes of Vegetarian Restaurants in Japan

Every Meal Triggers Inflammation

When we eat, we do not just take in nutrients – we also consume a significant quantity of bacteria. The body is faced with the challenge of simultaneously distributing the ingested glucose and fighting these bacteria. This triggers an inflammatory response that activates the immune systems of healthy individuals and has a protective effect, as doctors from the University and the University Hospital Basel have proven for the first time. In overweight individuals, however, this inflammatory response fails so dramatically that it can lead to diabetes.

It is well known that type 2 diabetes (or adult-onset diabetes) leads to chronic inflammation with a range of negative impacts. A number of clinical studies have therefore treated diabetes by impeding the over-production of a substance involved in this process, Interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta). In diabetes patients, this messenger substance triggers chronic inflammation and causes insulin-producing beta cells to die off.

Activation of the immune system

This inflammation does have some positive aspects, however, as was recently reported in the journal Nature Immunology by researchers from the Department of Biomedicine at the University and the University Hospital Basel. In healthy individuals, short-term inflammatory responses play an important role in sugar uptake and the activation of the immune system.

In their work, Professor Marc Donath, Head of the Department of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at the University Hospital Basel and his research team demonstrate that the number of macrophages (a type of immune cell) around the intestines increases during meal times. These so-called “scavenger cells­” produce the messenger substance IL-1beta in varying amounts, depending on the concentration of glucose in the blood. This, in turn, stimulates insulin production in pancreatic beta cells. The insulin then causes the macrophages to increase IL-1beta production. Insulin and IL-1beta work together to regulate blood sugar levels, while the messenger substance IL-1beta ensures that the immune system is supplied with glucose and thus remains active.

Bacteria and nutrients

According to the researchers, this mechanism of the metabolism and immune system is dependent on the bacteria and nutrients that are ingested during meals. With sufficient nutrients, the immune system is able to adequately combat foreign bacteria. Conversely, when there is a lack of nutrients, the few remaining calories must be conserved for important life functions at the expense of an immune response. This may go some way towards explaining why infectious diseases occur more frequently in times of famine.

Source: Medicine News Today

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