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World Nutella Day?

Millions are celebrating everywhere, but what's to celebrate?

Millions are celebrating everywhere . . .

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.

Classic Nutella jar beloved by millions.

Classic Nutella jar beloved by millions.

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 Nutrition LabelNutella 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 forest in Indonesia is cleared of all inhabitants and harvested to meet worldwide demand for palm oil.

Palm forest in Indonesia is cleared of all inhabitants and harvested to meet worldwide demand for palm oil.

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.

Healthy Nutella BreakfastYet 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.

Italian supermarkets are now filled with the same processed foods found everywhere in the U.S.

Italian supermarkets are now filled with the same processed foods found everywhere in the U.S.

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.

Deep, dark chocolate with low sugar content.

Deep, dark chocolate with low sugar content.

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.

Just-harvested hazelnuts from Puglia.

Just-harvested hazelnuts from Puglia.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Catherine, Please don’t go and ruin it for me!! I celebrated Nutella’s special day with oatmeal mixed with a tablespoon of Nutella. No additional sweetener or butter needed of course. And I love to smear a spoonful on a banana. Part of a healthy breakfast? No, I’m not kidding myself there. And I think your chocolate and hazelnut alternative is a great idea. Sandy

    February 6, 2013
    • I know, I know. I felt like such an incredible killjoy when I read it again. And in the final analysis, a little Nutella is not a truly terrible thing. I just got going on a rant about processed food following an unusual (for me) trip to a huge Auchan store. Aisle after aisle of prepared foods pumped full of a pharmacy of additives we just don’t need. Unfortunately for World Nutella Day, the two experiences just sort of collided. I hope your oatmeal/Nutella moment was wonderful!

      February 6, 2013
      • It’s certainly easy to rant about processed foods–I’ve done some of that myself! But we all have our guilty pleasures, I suppose. The oatmeal was delish! Happy day to you…

        February 6, 2013
  2. I very much appreciate this post Catherine! Thank you. We need these reminders all the time and the contextualization of the culture around it so that we can be thoughtful consumers and we can still enjoy those products (choc and hazelnut) without all the palm oil and refined sugars.

    February 6, 2013
    • Thanks, Katherine. I know we are completely in sync on this point, which is why your work is so incredibly important. Still, calling out Nutella in Italy is a little like bashing apple pie in the U.S. Keeping a low profile . . .

      February 6, 2013
  3. I remember seeing Nutella for the first time in Italy in 1973 and I couldn’t believe that people would eat a chocolate spread on bread and think it was good for you. I love it and for that reason won’t have it in the house, because I would eat it!
    I am a bit disappointed a the number of prepared and packaged food I see in supermarket trolleys here in Italy. My friends in Australia think that all Italians eat local and fresh and don’t believe me when I tell them many of them shop at huge supermarkets just like they do.
    I think a big part of the problem is working mothers who are time poor…and advertising. It can be just as quick to prepare a meal from scratch as it is to use preprepared ingredients, but you probably have to shop more often and some of the ads can be persuasive.
    I would be wonderful if we would all go back to shopping locally and in season, but I can’t see it happening any time soon…anywhere. Now that I don’t go to work everyday I have the luxury of being able to shop for what I want and when I want and have the time to choose the best on offer. I like to shop at farmers’ markets where possible, so I know where my food is coming from. But if I was working everyday and had a family to feed this wouldn’t be possible.

    February 6, 2013
    • Hi, Debra. I agree with you about the factors that have led to a shift away from genuine ingredients and unprocessed food in the developed world, but at the risk of sounding completely radicalized, I think corporate greed has a lot to do with the proliferation of processed products and the incredibly harmful ingredients with which they are made. Working parents who are strapped for time and money become willing participants in this assault on their health and well-being, since these products are invariably pretty inexpensive. They’re made with ingredients that have been engineered to be produced at the lowest possible cost and prepared with a minimum of effort. It’s a pretty vicious cycle. Is Nutella the worst? Absolutely not, but their marketing approach is pretty disingenuous. Okay, I’ll step off my soapbox now . . . thanks for letting me vent and for providing such a thoughtful comment, as always. A presto!

      February 6, 2013
  4. The new Findus scandal is exactly what you are saying. People are buying cheap and convenient food and now it seems we can’t trust the manufacturers to do the right thing.
    I think preparing a meal from fresh ingredients can be very quick and easy…and it generally tastes better too.

    February 10, 2013

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