Behind The Label: Nutella

Everything in moderation.

Most articles about the recent class action lawsuit against Nutella start with fond recollections of the author’s first encounter with the addicting hazelnut spread. My own experience is similar; I think Nutella and instantly conjure up memories of childhood summers in Umbria, hiking trips, and continental breakfasts on European train cars.

So when news that a California mom had accused parent company Ferrero of misleading advertising that characterized Nutella as “nutritious” and “healthy,” food writers with similar associations came to the company’s defense. The general consensus was that the plaintiff had to be, in some sense, kidding.

“Not withstanding my own youthful Nutella experience, how could a mom mistake the spread for health food?” wrote one NPR blogger. “I mean, the stuff tastes like chocolate.”

To be fair, the ads in question are a bit of a stretch. The television spot features a fresh-faced soccer mom espousing on the difficulties of feeding her children a balanced breakfast they’ll “want to eat.” According to the commercials, Nutella is a good option, with its simple quality ingredients like “hazelnuts, skim milk, and a hint of cocoa.” The spread’s top two ingredients – sugar and palm oil – are notably absent from the list.

Is the Nutella case just another example of a big sugary corporation trying to fatten up the American public through misleading advertising? Or is there more to the story? This week’s Behind the Label takes a look.

The Good

The Ferrero company was founded in the 1940s by an Italian pastry maker named Pietro Ferrero, who, facing a shortage of cocoa because of World War II rationing, turned instead to the hazelnuts that grew in abundance in the Piedmont region of Italy. Italian children embraced Ferrero’s hazelnut spread, and supercrema gianduja, as it was then called, was promoted as a democratic “product for the people” during Italy’s scarce post-war years. According to the company’s history:

From the start, Nutella spread was well received, since it was a less expensive way for people to enjoy something that tasted so good… a kilo of chocolate at the time was 6 times the cost of a kilo of pasta gianduja. So Nutella was a product that everyone could, and did, enjoy. The product became so popular that Italian food stores started a service called “The Smearing.” Children could go to their local food store with a slice of bread for a “smear” of supercrema gianduja.

In 1983, Nutella entered the American market, backed by a 40-year history as a European breakfast staple. However, Ferrero is careful about its marketing, both in the United States and abroad. The company applies the “Framework for Responsible Food and Beverage Communication” adopted by the International Chamber of Commerce, as well as self-regulatory codes developed locally. In addition, in early 2012, all Ferrero companies adopted a set of “Principles on Advertising and Marketing,” which governs marketing decisions according to the company’s values. Of particular note is Ferrero’s policy on marketing to children:

Ferrero has always believed in the crucial role played by parents in educating their children to a balanced diet and a healthy and active lifestyle. Therefore, advertising & marketing communications concerning our food products are directed primarily to the adults who make the household purchasing decisions and to young people 12 years and older, in terms of content as well as of media purchasing. Ferrero believes that particular care should be exercised when commercial communications are directed primarily to children, especially when children are most likely exposed to such communications without parental supervision.

As a result of these policies, Ferrero companies don’t advertise to audiences with more than 50 percent children under age 12. Rather than cultivate an early desire for products like Nutella through Saturday morning cartoon commercials and child-targeted promotions (hat tip, Frosted Flakes and Happy Meals) Ferrero aims to place the responsibility for food choice and education on the adults. In other words, Ferrero markets to the people who will (hopefully) read the labels at the supermarket and make an informed purchasing decision, rather than the ones that will throw fits when mommy won’t buy the bright sugary cereal they saw on TV.

The Bad

As much as I’ve always wanted to believe that Nutella was roughly the European equivalent of peanut butter – peanuts, hazelnuts, same thing… right? – I quickly learned the falsity of that myth after my first semester of college and the requisite 10 pounds that accompanied it. I stopped keeping Nutella on hand to prevent myself from the inevitable overindulgences (just one more pita-Nutella wrap before class) and late-night finger dollops (don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about).

So if it isn’t just raw hazelnuts, what does go into a jar of Nutella?

Unsurprisingly, ingredient numero uno is sugar, nearly five teaspoons per serving of it. You didn’t really think that taste came from a “hint of cocoa,” did you? Thankfully, it isn’t high-fructose corn syrup. The second ingredient on the list is palm oil, an ingredient that is known for being high in saturated fat. Though palm oil has lately been linked with rainforest deforestation. Ferrero is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a consortium dedicated to responsible palm use, and its palm oil is extracted from certified growers in Malaysia.

Nutrition-wise, a two-tablespoon serving of Nutella contains 200 calories, 11 grams of total fat, and 3.5 grams of saturated fat, along with 3 grams of protein, 1 gram of dietary fiber, and small percentages of calcium and iron.

The basis of the recent lawsuits were a marketing campaign and series of advertisements that failed to mention these facts, instead focusing on Nutella’s role as part of a balanced breakfast. This led the plaintiff, Athena Hohenberg, to purchase the product and feed it to her four-year-old daughter. According to court documents:

At various times during the Class Period, Ms. Hohenberg purchased Nutella spread after being exposed to and relying upon advertisements and representations by Defendant that Nutella is a “healthy breakfast” and is “nutritious.” Ms. Hohenberg was searching for healthy foods to serve her family for breakfast or as a snack because she is aware that healthy nutrition is important for maintaining the overall health of her family. Ms. Hohenberg trusted the representations made by Ferrero in its labeling Nutella, “An example of a tasty yet balanced breakfast,” in association with a picture showing fresh fruits, whole wheat bread, and orange juice.

Though Ferrero denied any wrongdoing, the company agreed to a class action settlement and will pay out more than $3 million to consumers who purchased Nutella between January 1, 2008, and February 3, 2012 (August 1, 2009, and January 23, 2012, in California), according to the New York Daily News. Ferrero also agreed to make changes to its marketing materials in order to make clearer that Nutella is not, in fact, a health food.

The Questionable

Now, I wouldn’t compare the nutritional content of Nutella with that of flaxseed or quinoa. But I do think that when consumed in moderation, Nutella can find a place within a balanced diet, particularly when it’s an accompaniment to more nutritious foods like whole wheat toast and fruit. A light-handed smear of Nutella, even with its sugar and palm oil, is preferable to a bowl of traditional children’s breakfast cereals like Froot Loops and Lucky Charms, with their loads of preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial coloring.

The trick is to view Nutella as what it is: a spread whose primary ingredients are sugar and palm oil. In the European countries where Nutella is a breakfast staple, portions are often smaller and people rarely overeat. If we adopt those principles, there’s no reason we can’t also enjoy a bit of Nutella with our morning toast… so long as we have the willpower to avoid those finger dollops.

Image: Janine

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.