On a recent cycling trip in Canada, I ate an obscene amount of Nutella. It works as a great lunch, and dipping fresh bread in it is a delicious snack. When you are exercising all day every day, a tasty, spreadable, dippable energy source like this is extremely useful. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very unhealthy food, but despite this, I’m a fan.
Which is why I was surprised this week to see Ferrero (the makers of Nutella) defending their product against claims that it causes cancer. A quick internet search revealed the problem. As the Tech Times put it: “Nutella Can Cause Cancer, Study Warns”. The Huffington Post ran with: “Stores Are Pulling Nutella After Report Links It To Cancer”, while the Daily Mail asked “Could Nutella give you CANCER?”. So what is this all about, and should you stop eating Nutella?
As I’m sure you can guess, the simple answer is no, there is currently little evidence to suggest that you need to avoid Nutella. This panic was based on a study released by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) last year which suggested that when palm oil is refined at above 200°C, it releases something called glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE). Previous work has shown that at high levels this chemical can cause cancer in rats. Ferraro do indeed use palm oil in Nutella, so people have made an assumption that it therefore contains GE. However, Ferrero have clearly stated that they do not process their palm oil at 200°C, so no GE is produced in the process. Case closed.
But for the sake of argument, lets pretend they do refine their palm oil at 200°C. Would the hypothetical amount of GE in Nutella be a cause for concern? In the EFSA report they quote the levels of GE that cause tumours in 25% of rats (10.2 mg/kg/day in case you are interested). Now obviously we would want to play it safe, and wouldn’t want to consume anywhere near that amount. So for argument’s sake, lets see how much Nutella we would need to eat to get 1/10,000th of that amount (thanks to this article for calculating the numbers). It turns out that the average adult would need to eat nearly 100g of the stuff every day to reach 1/10,000th of the amount that gives rats cancer. That’s over two jars a week, and if you are eating that much Nutella, then cancer is the least of your problems. The same amount of Nutella (800g) contains over 450g of sugar, which is double what your TOTAL sugar intake should be for a week.
Simply put, concerns about cancer are a terrible reason to stop eating Nutella. Their use of palm oil has many other problems associated with it, including the devastating environmental impact, but that is another argument. As always, this is a case of poor journalism. The study itself didn’t mention Nutella, and was just focused on the GE. Some simple fact checking would have shown that Nutella does not process their palm oil in a way that produces GE, but there is nothing like a food scare to attract clicks.