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Controversy swirls around palm oil in Nutella: What you need to know

Nutella fans have been jolted by some startling headlines about the popular chocolate-hazelnut spread.
/ Source: TODAY

If your day just isn’t the same without the sweet taste of Nutella — OK, some of us eat it by the spoonful straight from the jar — you may have been jolted by some startling headlines.

A recent report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) — a well-respected regulatory organization, similar to the Food and Drug Administration in the United States — has many obsessed fans on edge about the safety of the chocolate-hazelnut spread.

Should you back away from your pantry slowly? Here's what you need to know:

What’s the issue?

The focus is on one of Nutella's main ingredients: palm oil. It’s what gives the product its creamy texture and heightens its flavor, the maker of Nutella says. Most of the palm oil we consume comes from margarines and a variety of baked goods, including pastries and cakes.

But it’s not palm oil safety that’s in question — it’s what happens when it is processed and heated. The refining is done to remove the oil’s color and neutralize its smell, Reuters reports.

When palm oil used in processed foods is heated to high temperatures — above 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit) — a “potentially carcinogenic contaminant” is formed, which can present a “potential health concern.”

While that might sound scary, it’s important to explain the science.

It’s not possible to tell how much of this "contaminant" is formed, and how much any one person might be consuming. The scientific finding about the carcinogenic possibility is true, but very vague when it comes to knowing how much is safe to consume.

Importantly, the EFSA did not recommend banning palm oil from foods. The group did not make any comments about palm oil not heated above 200 degrees Celsius.

And here's the thing: Nutella's palm oil is processed at a temperature below 200 C combined with extremely low pressure to minimize any potential contaminants, according to the Italian manufacturer Ferrero, Reuters reported.

In short, the EFSA report didn't mention Nutella and its processing doesn't cross the risky threshold.

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Why is it a controversy now?

The debate about palm oil has been ongoing in Europe, and especially Italy, for years. Both the safety and sustainability of palm oil production have been called into play.

In light of the EFSA report, a major supermarket chain in Italy has removed palm oil from its store brand products as a “precaution”, and a popular Italian food brand, Barilla, now offers “palm oil-free” products, Reuters reports.

But these actions do not make palm oil unsafe — they provide consumers with a choice, if they want to avoid the product.

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What’s a consumer to do?

If Nutella is on your treat food list, there’s no scientific reason to cut it out because of the palm oil if you enjoy it now and then. But remember — the first ingredient is sugar and the product contains very little protein.

While it’s a tasty creamy spread, it’s not an even swap for peanut or almond butter.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D is NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.