World Nutella Day?
While noodling around the web the other day, I learned that February 5th has been proclaimed World Nutella Day. For those in the dark, Nutella is the brand name of a chocolate hazelnut spread manufactured by the Italian confectionary company Ferrero. Introduced in the early ‘60s, several generations of Italians—and children all over the world—have grown up devoted to Nutella, so much so that seven years ago, two of its more ardent fans declared February 5th to be its special day.
So committed are its millions of devotees that just hinting Nutella is anything other than ambrosia in a jar is probably tantamount to heresy. So here goes . . . if decadence, flavor and comfort are what you’re after when you dip your spoon into the gooey gloss that is Nutella, you would do much better to dip elsewhere.
Nutella is made from sugar, modified palm oil, hazelnuts, cocoa, skim milk, reduced minerals, whey (from milk), soy lecithin: and vanillin, an artificial flavor. This last ingredient is particularly interesting because Nutella’s marketing materials indicate that “ . . . no artificial colors and no artificial preservatives . . .” are used to make it. Note that the first ingredient, sugar, represents about 40% of the total calories in an average serving—a whopping 21 grams.
Palm oil, the next major ingredient, is a poor choice both for health and from an environmental perspective since the rain forest habitats where it thrives have been destroyed to meet escalating worldwide demand. Although palm oil is perceived to be a healthier alternative to other trans-fats in foods, recent research has indicated that palm oil actually contributes to heart disease as a result of its saturated and unsaturated fat levels. Today, one out of every two supermarket items, from palm oil to sausages, contains palm oil.
Yet Nutella is marketed as “ . . . part of a healthy breakfast.” On Nutella’s own website, it’s possible to “ . . . build your own breakfast . . .” from a variety of offerings to determine if your choices are healthy. When I made my choices as a 15 year-old girl who is moderately active, I was stunned to find that apple juice, chocolate milk, bacon, potatoes and a toaster waffle topped with Nutella fell within the site’s guidelines for appropriate fat, carbohydrate and protein intake at breakfast.
According to Dr. Mark Hyman, a practicing physician, founder of The UltraWellness Center and a five-time New York Times bestselling author, “ . . . in just seven years, between 2000 and 2008, pre-diabetes and diabetes in teenagers has gone from 9 percent to 23 percent. In the last 15 years, the percentage of new cases of type 2 diabetes (formerly called adult onset diabetes) in children went from 3 percent to almost 50 percent. And when kids get type 2 diabetes, it is more aggressive, and less responsive to medical treatment.” If they’re eating a breakfast that meets the Nutella site’s guidelines, we can only assume that the situation will get worse before it gets better.
All of this is more than slightly disturbing, but the real issue is the cultural context. Traditionally, Italy is a country that values genuine, authentic and minimally processed ingredients raised on Italian soil. Fresh and dried figs stuffed with toasted almonds, sweet watermelon and peaches in the summer and the juicy tang of a clementine in the dead of winter were the treats Italian children used to crave all year. Gianduia, the heavenly Piedmontese marriage of pure chocolate and locally grown hazelnuts dating from the early 1800s, is the confection upon which Nutella is based. Modern day Nutella, though, is a perversion of this classic confection, relying on Malaysian and Indonesian palm trees, sugar from Brazil or India and vanillin from a food additive laboratory. And Nutella is just one of thousands of similarly highly processed food products that now line Italian supermarket shelves, contributing to one of the most serious childhood obesity epidemics in Europe.
So at the risk of throwing some seriously cold water on the thriving worldwide Nutella cult, I won’t be celebrating World Nutella Day this year. Instead, I will indulge in a square or two of chocolate fondant with a handful of toasted Pugliese hazelnuts in homage to the simple, unadulterated pleasures for which Italy still holds an enduring reputation for la dolce vita.