It’s a cruel fact that this January, while we’re busy repenting that third helping of Christmas chocolate, the news has been full of Nutella, pictures of Nutella and headlines that simultaneously imply that Nutella could give you cancer while tempting you to dig in. There were two basic types of headline — ‘Nutella could cause cancer…’ and ‘Could Nutella give you CANCER?’ — and neither of them was reassuring.
But there is more to the story than chocolate spread. The ‘scare’ is actually about palm oil — or, to be precise, a group of potentially risky substances produced when palm oil is heated at very high temperatures.
The report that started the whole controversy, by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), does not even mention Nutella. In fact it estimates that the main sources of our exposure to these substances are margarines, pastries and cakes.
In some cases, the report says, ‘chocolate spreads and similar’, ‘fried or baked potato products’ and ‘fried or roast meat’ are important contributors of two of the three potentially risky substances it looked at. These were glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD) and their fatty acid esters in food.
These substances are not just present in palm oils and palm fats, but are present in other processed vegetable oils too.
So, if a wide variety of oils and processed foods contain these contaminants, how worried should we be?
Research is still in an early phase. Controversially, the authors of the EFSA report estimated the safe daily intake of the contaminants using data from animal studies, as little research on humans has been done. In some cases, like for 2-MCD, the data was so limited they could not calculate a safe daily intake at all.
The regulator concluded that there was enough evidence to suggest that GE was a potential health concern for all younger age groups with average exposures, and for people with high exposure in all age groups.
Dr Helle Knutsen, chair of the panel, said: ‘The exposure to GE of babies consuming solely infant formula is a particular concern as this is up to ten times what would be considered of low concern for public health.’
The phrase from the experts, though, is ‘more research is needed’, as research in animals does not necessarily translate to humans.
So what, if anything, can we do to reduce our intake of these substances? A spokesman from the UK Food Standards Agency said consumers should eat a ‘healthy, balanced and varied diet to balance the risk’.
There is some good news. Levels of GE in palm oils and fats halved between 2010 and 2015, due to voluntary measures taken by producers. Nutella’s own website states that the spread is made using lower heat treatments to keep contaminants at a minimum and that it is already in line with new thresholds recommended by the European regulator.
On infant formula, the UK Food Standards Agency said it was ‘already working with the food industry to reduce the levels of both glycidyl esters and refined oils’.
The contaminants are associated with industrial processing. The bad news, though, is that there is not enough data to determine whether we can also produce them when we cook at home.
Add this to the lack of real certainty about the health risks these contaminants actually pose and we are given little choice but to wait for the research and eat a varied diet. And that, for me, includes Nutella.