Palm oil, one of the most common vegetable oils used in global food manufacturing, has been the subject of recent safety concerns. Consumer advocacy groups are pointing to a potentially harmful manufacturing byproduct that has been linked to cancer. Media outlets, from CNN to USA Today, have so intensely covered this relatively unknown byproduct that Nutella, which uses palm oil in their hazelnut spread, has been forced to address health concerns about their product.
Palm oil is a preferred ingredient for food products because of its heat resistance, cost of manufacturing and desirable texture. Crude palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the palm fruit and subsequently refined. This processing involves the treatment of the triglycerides with hydrochloric acid and water in order to separate out glycerol and the fatty acids.
However, there is a minor byproduct that forms during this processing. Glycerol is converted to 3-monochloropropane-1,2-diol, denoted by the shorthand label 3-MCPD.
3-MCPD, present in ranges between 0.00045% and 0.00135% in processed palm oil, has been linked several negative health endpoints. When ingested, 3-MCPD is metabolized to several different products, one being glycidiol.
Glycidiol has proven carcinogenicity. However, it is important to note that studies done with this chemical have used what would be considered an extremely high dose of this molecule. As any toxicologist would say, dose makes the poison.
Dosing, or the amount ingested, is the metric by which health outcomes are measured. Dosing is measured in units of milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg), which means that a certain number of milligrams will be dosed per kilogram of body weight. Health effects in mice begin when glycidiol is given in daily doses of 10mg/kg of body weight. Adjusting this dose to humans, with an average weight of 62kg, gives a corresponding dose of 0.62 grams.
If it is assumed that all 3-MCPD is metabolized directly to glycerdiol, then using the upper limits of 0.00135% of 3-MCPD in palm oil, one would have to ingest 46,000 grams of palm oil to receive the equivalent of a 0.62 gram dose of 3-MCPD. To put this in perspective, Nutella is roughly 30% palm oil, so one would have to eat over 150,000 grams (or 150 kilograms) of Nutella to receive a 0.62 gram dose of 3-MCPD.
Scientific messaging has become increasingly complex in the age of the informed (and sometimes misinformed) consumer. Journalists, often with no scientific background, are prone to sensationalist headlines which can confuse even the most scientifically adept. Brands are now in a position where they must own and defend the science of their products to an increasingly skeptical market. Communicating the core science and data not only helps educate the consumer, but builds confidence and trust.