What’s really wrong with one of the world’s most popular comfort foods? Nutella, the wildly popular hazelnut and chocolate spread based on Italy’s local specialty, gianduia, is said to have been invented to compensate for the lack of cocoa available during Napoleon’s blockade of the British colonies. The first jar of Nutella was sold in 1964, based on a much older rendition. So, what has changed since then to make it the subject of a possible ban?
Why the Fuss Over Nutella?
Another lesser-known ingredient in Nutella, and in a thousand and one other products, is palm oil. Nutella relies on palm-oil to give the spread a smooth texture and help ensure its shelf life, but European authorities have listed palm oil as a possible carcinogen.
The makers of Nutella aren’t convinced that palm oil should be removed from their product, though.
"Making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the real product; it would be a step backward," Ferrero's purchasing manager Vincenzo Tapella has told the press. A TV add run by Nutella says that the palm oil they use “comes from freshly squeezed fruits and is processed at controlled temperatures”, but Ferrero uses approximately 185,000 tonnes of palm oil a year, so replacing it with a substitute could cost the firm an extra $8-22 million annually.
One of Italy’s largest grocery store chains, Coop, has already pulled 200 of its own brand products that contained refined palm oil for the very same concerns, that it increases the risk of people developing cancer. Italy’s biggest baker, Barilla, has also eliminated palm oil from their products and has placed ‘palm oil-free’ labels on produce, while other food companies are boycotting palm oil due to health and environmental concerns.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has warned that the refining process is what makes palm oil a possible carcinogen. One again, it is the way we process our food that is of concern.
Many processed foods use palm oil, from cakes and pies to bread and margarine. Nutella is not the only culprit.
Is Palm Oil Cancer-Causing?
The EFSA explained in May that palm oil is potentially carcinogenic when processed at high temperatures. Their report states that palm oil “generated more of a potentially carcinogenic contaminant than other vegetable oils when refined at temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius.” Glycidyl fatty acid ester (GE) is at the center of the cancer concerns, and GE is only produced when palm oil is heated above 200°C.
It is important for people to know that palm oil is one of the cheapest vegetable oils available currently, and this is why it is used by so many food manufacturers in their products. It is also used in detergents, cosmetics and numerous other products.
Research previously showed how healthy palm can be, with much of West Africa deriving their dietary fats from palm oil for centuries, so it can be very confusing to muddle through the onslaught of information about Nutella and a possible ‘cancer-scare.’
Aside from the cancer issue, though, is another concern which isn’t being mentioned at all with the recent coverage of a possible Nutella ban.
The Bigger Picture
Palm oil is among the biggest threats driving iconic wildlife species, like the Sumatran orangutan, to the brink of extinction in Indonesia. Palm oil, being a cheap food additive and driven by the food industry in America, which has recently had to move away from using trans fats in their foods, is causing the Amazonian rain forest to be clear cut faster than it can be regenerated.
These plantations are also the reason for a bevy of human rights violations, as palm oil companies forcefully remove indigenous people from their lands.
Aside from the obvious environmental implications, the rainforests of Indonesia and Africa are some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, containing 10 percent of the world’s known plants, 12 percent of mammals and 17 percent of all known bird species.
It is also suspected that plant medicines and herbs available in a single square mile of the Amazonian forest could heal thousands of diseases. In fact, half of the top ten prescription drugs in the U.S. are of animal, plant or microorganism origin, most of which were discovered in the forest. Only one percent of the Amazons plants, roots, flowers, berries and leaves have been tested for medicinal properties.
The Amazon also produces ten percent of the oxygen on our entire planet, and valuable ancient knowledge about these natural gifts are being destroyed, along with the rainforest, as indigenous groups are forced to move from the land.
We’ve already lost 50% of our rainforests over the past several decades, so if we continue to plow them down for palm oil, cancer won’t be our only concern. We will have lost medicines that would possibly cure Alzheimer’s, arthritis, heart disease, obesity, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and cancer, just to name a few.
So, should Nutella be banned, along with all the other foods that contain palm oil? Certainly, the immediate risk of cancer could be addressed by simply processing the oil differently. However, the more pertinent question to ask is – what will we lose medicinally and environmentally if we keep destroying the rainforests for palm oil plantations? How many miracle drugs and natural cures have we already lost?
Here are just a few ‘miracle’ plants we do know about that came from the rainforests which are being destroyed:
Cocoa – “Cocoa is packed with flavonols that are more effective for lowering cholesterol than any statin drug.” - Chris Kilham, Woman's World
Guayusa – Delivers jitter-free alertness and heightens intuition. For thousands of years, natives of the Orient have been sipping guayusa the way we do coffee.
Pau d’Arco – Full of Immunity boosting compounds, this single plant is antiviral, antifungal and anti-inflammatory.
Chuchuhuasi – Fights inflammation and reduces pain.
Chanca Piedra – Dissolves kidney and gallstones.
Boldo – Aids in digestion and is used in South American countries more than aspirin.
Truthfully, palm oil is just the tip of the iceberg. If it were processed correctly (which most food manufacturers don’t do), then it likely wouldn’t cause cancer, but if we continue to value palm oil plantations over the abundant natural resources that have been growing for thousands of years, we’re missing the entire point.