Italian confectionery firm Ferrero – the maker of Nutella spread – has come out in public defence of palm oil, after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) flagged concerns about process contaminants found in palm and other vegetable oils last May.

Ferrero has launched an advertising campaign to assure the public about the safety of Nutella, its flagship product, Reuters said.

"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 told Reuters.

Palm oil gave the chocolate and hazelnut spread its smooth texture and shelf life and Ferrero used about 185,000 tonnes/year of the oil, Reuters said.

In May, the EFSA said glycerol-based contaminants found in palm and other vegetable oils, margarines and some processed foods raised potential health concerns for younger consumers and for people who consumed a high amount of these products (see OFI News, June 2016).

The EFSA assessed the health risks of glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD) and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD) and their fatty acid esters. The substances form during food processing, particularly when refining vegetables oils at high temperatures around and above 2000C.

The highest levels of GE, as well as 3-MPCD and 2-MCPD (including esters), were found in palm oils and palm fats.

The EFSA’s expert Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) concluded that GE was a potential health concern for all younger age groups with average exposure, and for consumers with high exposure in all age groups, with a particular concern for babies consuming solely infant formula.

In a statement on 13 January, Ferrero said “the presence of contaminants depends on the oils and fats used as well as the processes they are subjected to. It is for this reason that Ferrero carefully selects quality raw materials and applies specific industrial processes that limit their presence to minimum levels”.

Specifically, Ferrero said it processed palm oil at a temperature just below 2000C at extremely low pressure to minimise contaminants.

Following the EFSA report, Italy’s largest supermarket chain, Coop, boycotted palm oil in all its own-brand products, the Reuters report said. Italy's biggest baker, Barilla, also eliminated it and put "palm oil-free" labels on its products.

Reuters said Ferrero was the only big European food company to mount such a public defense of palm oil following the EFSA opinion, launching its advertising campaign in September.

Global Nutella sales were growing at 5-6% annually, said Ferrero, which ended its fiscal year to August with total revenue of US$10.5bn, of which a fifth came from Nutella sales.

Dr Kalyana Sundram, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, said neither the EFSA nor any other national food safety authority had advocated a ban on the consumption or use of palm oil or any other vegetable oil.

“The occurrence of 3MCPD and its glycidiyl esters are found in all oils and fats. The reasons for their occurrence are several fold, starting from cultivation due to soil conditions through to final processing and refining.

“The Malaysian palm oil industry views the occurrence of the contaminants with much concern, although the actual risk to human health has yet to be clearly defined, and appears small in light of the accumulated data of potential exposures through foods,” he said.

“Nevertheless, our industry is urgently innovating and improving processing technologies for palm oil that should result in the reduction or elimination of these compounds.

“As a first step, since palm oil is used in several leading infant food formulations, the occurrence of these contaminants was voluntarily reduced or eliminated in palm oil intended for infant formulations. The better known global infant formula manufacturers use such premium palm oil fractions in their infant formulas.”