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'Shocking' News About Nutella

The chocolaty spread is in legal trouble

Update: In April 2012, Athena Hohenberg's suit became one of two class-action settlements reached against Ferrero for its advertising and labeling of Nutella. The company agreed to a $3 million payout and said it would change its marketing claims. Since then, appeals have been filed in both cases.

A soft, sweet chocolate-hazelnut spread isn't a nutritious breakfast food? We are shocked — shocked! — to learn this. Or rather, we aren't really shocked at all, but apparently a California woman is. And she has filed a lawsuit about it.

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Athena Hohenberg of San Diego has filed suit against Ferrero, the Italian makers of Nutella, for advertising that a smear of the chocolate-hazelnut spread on a slice of whole grain bread or a whole wheat waffle is a healthy breakfast. In recent television commercials, a harried mom calls Nutella "a quick and easy way to give my family a breakfast they'll want to eat." She touts its "simple, quality ingredients like hazelnuts, skim milk and a hint of cocoa" — a laughable oversimplification, considering that sugar and oil are the first two ingredients listed on the label, and skim milk is almost dead last.

Obviously wanting to serve such an easy, appealing breakfast Hohenberg stated in her complaint that she bought Nutella and served it to her young daughter until friends told her that "Nutella was in fact not a 'healthy' 'nutritious' food, but instead was the next best thing to a candy bar."

Really? Wasn't the word "chocolate" a clue? Or maybe the label that lists 21 grams of sugar in each 2-tablespoon serving?

Older Americans may remember that Nutella was created in the 1940s in Italy. Cocoa was in short supply from World War II rationing, so pastry-maker Pietro Ferrero thought to stretch a small amount of cocoa by blending it with rich-tasting hazelnuts, which were plentiful in Italy. For more than 40 years, Nutella spread on bread or toast was a popular quick breakfast in Europe. The product was then introduced in the United States in 1983, according to the company.

As for its nutritious qualities, let's be honest: Nutella has the basic nutrition profile of chocolate frosting with slightly more protein. (Chocolate frosting has 1 gram of protein; Nutella has 3 grams, thanks to its hazelnuts and skim milk.)

So, is chocolate frosting healthy for breakfast? Of course not. Two tablespoons of Nutella contains the equivalent of five teaspoons of sugar. That's very high.

But even the Nutella website says it should be "used in moderation with complementary foods." A tablespoon spread on a slice of high-fiber whole grain bread accompanied by fresh fruit and a glass of milk or some yogurt is not going to get you arrested by the nutrition police. And some of us have been known to stir a dollop of it into our oatmeal for a change of pace.

Hohenberg's lawyer, Ronald Marron, told National Public Radio's health blog, "Some people might think that this lawsuit never should have been filed. But we want to hold food makers accountable."

Or, if nothing else, encourage people to actually read the nutrition information on the label.

Candy Sagon writes about health and food for the AARP Bulletin.

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