Claims that eating Nutella can lead to cancer have revamped amid a dispute over the health hazards of palm oil, one of the world-famous chocolate spread main ingredients.

The controversy comes on the back of research from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published in May claiming that the consumption of palm oil products may lead to cancer, amid growing awareness from the general public over the damages that palm oil production causes to wildlife and to the environment. But while companies have made efforts to substitute palm oil in their products, Nutella maker Ferrero publicly defends the use of the vegetable oil.

Palm oil comes second in Nutella's list of ingredients after sugar, but the label does not specify the exact percentage of the ingredient in relation to the product. What is known is that two tablespoons of Nutella contains about 4g of saturated fats, which mostly derive from the presence of the oil.

The EFSA's study focused on the risk to public health of various substances such as glydicyl fatty acid esters (GE), which mainly form during food processing –particularly when vegetable oils are refined at high temperatures, around 200°C. The highest levels of those substances where found in palm oil and palm fats.

According to the EFSA, a "tolerable" quantity is 0.8 microgramme per kilo of body weight (one microgramme equals to one billionth of a kilogramme). In other words, a person weighing 70kg could "tolerate" a consumption of 0.056 milligrammes of GE before it could become harmful.

A woman spreads Nutella on a slice of bread in Milan Reuters

The study's results were particularly concerning in relation to baby formula, which contains high levels of palm oil, and the consequences on young people's health. "There is sufficient evidence that glycidol (the parent compound of GE) is genotoxic [altering cells to cause a mutation such as cancer] and carcinogenic [having the potential to cause cancer]" said Dr Helle Knutzen, chair of the EFSA panel examining contaminants in the food chain, as quoted in trade publication Food Navigator.

She added the panel's findings were based on evidence linking the substance to organ damage in animal testing and that more research would be needed to set a safe level for GE.

As the Ferrero website shows, palm oil is a main ingredient in their products – sold across the world. Ferrero's brand focuses on family values and providing quality, nutritional products, and the company claims they only use the best quality ingredients in their production processes. In celebration of the company's 70-year anniversary in 2016, Ferrero aired a TV ad in Italy: "Like all high-quality vegetable oil, our palm oil is safe. It comes from fruits pressed fresh from sustainable sources and manufactured under controlled temperatures".

On their website, Ferrero insists that the palm oil used in their product is safe for consumption and comes from sustainable sources. The company quoted research from the Italian health institute ISS, which expands on the EFSA findings. According to them, health dangers do not simply derive from palm oil consumption, but from the quantity of product consumed in relation to the person's lifestyle and physical activity.

"There is no reason why palm oil shouldn't be a food ingredients" ISS researcher Marco Silano said at an event organised by Ferrero in Milan to discuss the merits and perils of palm oil. To evaluate its risk to a person's health, "you need to consider their whole diet and level physical activity" he added.

borneo deforestation palm oil
Aerial survey mission by Greenpeace at East Kotawaringin district in Central Kalimantan on Indonesia's Borneo shows cleared trees in a forest located in the concession of Karya Makmur Abadi which is being developed for a palm oil plantation (February 24, 2014) AFP/Getty

The event, which took place in October, also saw the participation of a representative of environmental NGO Greenpeace. Greenpeace sponsored the creation of the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), of which Ferrero is a member. The company claims to have been recognised as the only one among the POIG's 14 member companies to "trace back almost 100% of palm oil sourced to the plantation of origin" - the exact percentage is not given.

A variety of products contain palm oil, such as ice creams, margarine, biscuits, and chocolate spreads like Nutella. Palm oil is the cheapest kind of vegetable oil and is the ingredient of choice for many multinational companies who are involved in mass food production such as Unilever and Nestle.

In Italy, consumer pressure against palm oil has led to several food makers, including the pasta-maker Barilla and the supermarket chain Coop, to add a 'palm-oil free' label to their products. But for Ferrero, a company whose whole product range features palm oil, switching to an alternative ingredient may compromise the products' quality and price. According to Reuters, Ferrero uses about 185,000 tonnes of palm oil a year, and using alternative substitutes could cost an extra $8-22 million annually.

The company did not comment on these calculations, but it specified that their production processes involving palm oil occur just below the 200 degrees limit and at extremely low pressure to minimise contaminants. Purchasing manager Vincenzo Tapella told Reuters: "Making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the real product, it would be a step backward."