Nutella on Defense After Unsubstantiated Health Concerns

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.

The Honest Company's Trouble with Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

The Honest Company, which describes itself as a safer consumer goods company, has raised safety concerns around the chemical sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a common ingredient in household cleaners and detergents. The Honest Company pledged to never use SLS in any of its products and would use sodium coco sulfate (SCS) instead. 

In the spring of 2016, the Wall Street Journal published an article in which independent laboratory testing detected significant levels of SLS in The Honest Company’s liquid laundry detergent. Through one simple analytical test, the credibility of The Honest Company was compromised.

By taking a deeper dive into the ingredients in question, it is possible to determine how SLS could have made its way into The Honest Company’s detergent. Both SLS and SCS are surfactants, chemicals that help remove stains and provide lather. Consumer advocacy groups have raised concerns about SLS, based on worries it can strip skin of essential oils, and cause dryness and irritation. SCS, derived from coconut oil, has been suggested as a gentler replacement for SLS. However, upon close examination of the manufacturing of these chemicals, it becomes apparent that SCS and SLS are not entirely different.

Sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) is made via a series of chemical reactions using the starting material lauric acid, pictured below.     

In a similar process, sodium coco sulfate (SCS) is synthesized through the same reactions, using coconut oil as a starting material. However, coconut oil is not just one chemical, but a mixture of many. The predominant chemical in coconut oil is lauric acid, the same starting material for the synthesis of SLS.

While sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium coco sulfate are two different ingredients, a review of the chemical manufacturing shows that sodium coco sulfate contains high quantities of sodium lauryl sulfate.

The Honest Company has maintained that their detergents contain no sodium lauryl sulfate and have disputed the Wall Street Journal’s findings. However, they have also recently reformulated all their detergents to no longer use sodium coco sulfate.

The relationship between consumer products and chemicals has changed dramatically in the past several years, driven by both consumer pressure and emerging scientific data. Brands operating in the personal care space must provide factual scientific information while communicating it in clear and understandable ways. More importantly, brands must themselves have a grasp of fundamental scientific concepts to ensure their claims are backed by scientific testing, not refuted by it.