Don't freak out, that Nutella cancer study is far from confirmed

Nutella can give you lots of things — like happiness or high blood sugar — but cancer isn't one of them, according to the company that makes the hazelnut spread.

Italian confectionery giant Ferrero is pushing back against a European study that suggests chemicals from palm oil — an ingredient in Nutella and thousands of other packaged foods — might pose a cancer risk to humans.

So far, no food safety authority has said people shouldn't eat foods containing palm oil, Nutella or otherwise.

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But European regulators are now considering putting limits on the amount of palm oil-related chemicals that food products can contain. Such measures might require Ferrero and other manufacturers to spend millions of dollars on substitute ingredients, Reuters reported.

That's why Nutella's maker is putting up a fight.

A jar of Nutella hazelnut chocolate spread stands on the counter at Eataly's "Nutella bar" in New York City.

A jar of Nutella hazelnut chocolate spread stands on the counter at Eataly's "Nutella bar" in New York City.

Image: Anthony Behar/Sipa USA

Ferrero, which is based in Alba, Italy, has launched a massive ad campaign on TV channels and newspapers to convince the public that Nutella is still safe to spread on toast, fold into crepes or eat directly from the jar.

"The palm oil used by Ferrero is safe because it comes from freshly squeezed fruits and is processed at controlled temperatures," Vincenzo Tapella, Ferrero's purchasing manager, said in a TV ad, according to Reuters.

But can palm oil really harm your health?

European and global food safety experts are still looking into that.

Last May, the EU-backed European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that palm oil generates more of a potentially cancer-causing contaminant than other vegetable oils when refined at temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius, or 392 degrees Fahrenheit.

A plantation worker harvests palm oil fruits in Indonesia's Riau Province.

A plantation worker harvests palm oil fruits in Indonesia's Riau Province.

Image: Dimas ardian/Getty Images

The contaminant, called glycidyl fatty esters (GE), is formed during the refining process. When your stomach digests GE, the contaminant breaks down and releases glycidol, which has been found to cause tumors in lab mice.

The World Health Organization and U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization have also flagged GE's potential health risks.

Yet none of these three agencies has recommended that consumers stop eating palm oil. European researchers have also said that more studies are needed to determine just how much of a cancer risk GE poses to humans.

For the palm oil business, cancer fears aren't the only problem.

The $44-billion global industry is also under pressure from environmental groups. Large-scale palm farming has led to widespread deforestation in parts of Southeast Asia and Central America.

Indonesian soldiers spray water on a burned forest area near Rimbo Panjang Village. Hundreds of fires are often illegally ignited to clear forests in Indonesia for pulp and paper and palm oil companies.

Indonesian soldiers spray water on a burned forest area near Rimbo Panjang Village. Hundreds of fires are often illegally ignited to clear forests in Indonesia for pulp and paper and palm oil companies.

Image: Yuono Tanto H/NurPhoto/Sipa USA

In Indonesia and Malaysia, palm oil companies are draining and clearing vast areas of peatland — the swampy forests that lock in billions of tons of carbon. Once destroyed, the soil sends that carbon back into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Ferrero said it is among a group of food companies that buy sustainably sourced palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Environmental groups recommend that concerned consumers look for the RSPO label or Green Palm label on packaged foods and household products to make sure manufacturers used sustainable palm oil.

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