You have heard this sensational news about “Nutella causes cancer according to a study”. It initially came into my news feed from the Independent through an article with a “clickbait” headline such as “Nutella removed from shelves as it causes cancer”. The article was fairly alarmist, claiming a study linked contaminant in Nutella in causing cancer in children, such claims built on a EFSA (European Food Safety Agency) study but yet failed to specify a direct link to the official press release. The original article has been removed or edited within hours and replaced with a more nuanced and realistic although the original HTML link still keep on the headlines (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/nutella-causes-cancer-palm-oil-supermarket-ban-italy-cadburys-a7522291.html).
That was not only bad science reporting but also bad journalism ethic, spinning an old press release into a twisted fake news that was surely attractive enough to call it “clickbait”.
1. What is all about Nutella causes cancer?
It all comes back to an press release from EFSA published on May 3, 2016, seven months before the #Nutellagate and available here: (https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/160503a). If you read the press release, it involves any vegetable oils and any oils used in food processing. The release focused on certain oil byproducts called glycidyl fatty ester (GE), 2- and 3-monocholoroproanediol (2-MCPD and 3-MCPD) formed by heating process (200ºC). These compounds are classified as “contaminants” (that means trace of these compounds were found in oils) and palm oil was among the different oils tested as one containing the highest amount of these contaminants. There are indication about a possible carcinogenicity of these compounds in rodents, in particular some form of kidney cancer in rats. The EFSA considers that is no safe levels of these contaminants. Yet, it is important to note that EFSA also noted the limitations of the current literature and further toxicity studies are needed. I don’t blame the EFSA of being overreactive, but also it is important than EFSA provides a clear picture and clearly establish an exhaustive “dose makes the poison” issue.
Now it is surprising that it took more than 7 months to associate that report with Nutella, considering that the report clearly and only mentioned “and in some cases ‘Chocolate spreads and similar’” (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2903/j.efsa.2016.4426/full). Does it means it is only the main source? Hell no but surprisingly, other food sources went under the rug. This is one of the most relevant paragraph:
“For ‘Infants’, the food groups ‘Infant and follow-on formulae’, ‘Vegetable fats and oils’ and ‘Cookies’ were the major contributors to 3- and 2-MCPD and glycidol exposure. For ‘Toddlers’, the food groups ‘Vegetable fats and oils’, ‘Cookies’ and ‘Pastries and cakes’ were the major contributors to 3- and 2-MCPD and glycidol exposure. ‘Infant formula’ and follow-on formula’ were also important contributors to 3- and 2-MCPD exposure. For ‘Other children’, the food groups with highest contribution to exposure to 3- and 2-MCPD and glycidol were ‘Pastries and cakes’, ‘Margarine and similar’ and ‘Cookies’. For glycidol, ‘Fried or roast meat’ was an additional relevant contributor. ‘Vegetable fats and oils’ also contributed to 3- and 2-MCPD, and glycidol exposure. For ‘Adolescents’, ‘Adults’, ‘Elderly’ and ‘Very elderly’, the major sources of 3- and 2-MCPD and glycidol were ‘Margarine and similar’ and ‘Pastries and cakes’. Additionally, ‘Fried or baked potato products’ were important contributors to 3- and 2-MCPD exposure while ‘Fried or roast meat’ and in some cases ‘Chocolate spreads and similar’ were important contributors to glycidol exposure.”
Basically anything that contain vegetable oil is at possible danger of containing these compounds. However, the original source considering cherry-picking facts and falsely restricting to one food product highly popular in Europe was sounding like a nice way to generate traffic and revenues.
In this one they used a classical argument fallacy trope to build their narrative:
If A tells “palm oil contain carcinogens” and B tells “Nutella contains palm oil” we ended up with “Nutella contain carcinogens”.
Thats the goal of any “clickbait” article: to make revenues by generating high traffic to the link. Most of the time, these articles care little about facts and either use deceptive headlines, use far-stretched narrative, if not “fake news” as their claims are not based on verified information. Now, I expect a journalist to follow ethical rules that applies to academic publishing.
If I publish an article and I have noticed a mistake in my article, I can only fix it by notifying the editor and publishing an erratum in a follow up issue. In the case of an online article, publishing an [Update] on top of the original article would also make the job. The Independent in my opinion showed some unethical journalism by just erasing their old stuff and replacing with the new stuff. Of course the damage is done and that was enough to spark some conspiracy theories.
2. So does it mean I can keep on splurging my Nutella jar?
Put down that tablespoon and wait a minute. Lets look at the nutrition facts (https://www.nutella.com/en/uk/range).
Nutella is like any other spread, even a bit healthier than a tablespoon of peanut butter spread (190kcal) but still much much than a strawberry jam spread (36kcal).
The problem of course comes from the amount of fat and sugar. They are both known to be important risk factors for obesity, Type II diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Therefore, your main concern should be amount consuming in moderation. Moderation is key, even for a treat like Nutella.