Go Ahead, Eat Chocolate for Breakfast

Why the lawsuit against Nutella is bunk.

Nutella for breakfast? Go for it.

Athena Hohenberg used to serve her kid Nutella first thing in the morning. She says Ferrero’s labeling and television marketing convinced her that the chocolate-and-hazelnut spread could form part of a wholesome, balanced breakfast for her 4-year-old daughter. Then a friend told Hohenberg that, nutritionally, Nutella resembles a candy bar, and Hohenberg—shocked and angry—filed a lawsuit against Ferrero in California. Similar criticisms have been lobbed at Ferrero in the U.K., over a TV commercial that again promoted Nutella as family-friendly breakfast food. The Advertising Standards Authority received 31 complaints that the ad falsely leads viewers to consider the spread healthful by concealing its high amounts of sugar and fat, and the ASA was under pressure to ban it.

At the end of June, however, the ASA rejected those complaints—and rightly so. Indeed, judge Marilyn Huff, who will preside over the Ferrero USA hearing on Aug. 29, should follow the ASA’s lead. Nutella isn’t the breakfast demon that Hohenberg and others make it out to be, certainly not when consumed as advertised.  

On packaging and on TV, no one tucks into half a jar with a spoon, or a bare finger; it’s applied judiciously on a slice of wheat toast. The label’s example of “a tasty yet balanced breakfast” includes a glass of skim milk, orange juice, and Nutella on whole-wheat bread. A recent U.S. commercial shows three kids passing up on heart-healthy whole-wheat toast with customary disdain, until it’s gilded with Nutella. So, yes, Ferrero is touting Nutella as nutritious fare, but not uniquely. It’s nutritious as part of a larger landscape of wholesome foods that by themselves lack the taste appeal and indulgence of chocolate. Nutella makes the medicine go down.

Moreover, Nutella isn’t too terrible in its own right. It’s not as healthy as, say, a banana or an apple, but when compared with other permissible breakfast spreads, Nutella’s vital statistics are fair. One tablespoon of Nutella contains 100 calories, 5.5 grams fat, 0.5 grams fiber, 1.5 grams protein, and 10.5 grams sugar. Sure, the sugar content is high, but it also has a low Glycemic Index of 33, which means the energy is slow releasing. The same amount of Smucker’s strawberry preserves contains 50 calories and no fat. It also contains no protein, no fiber, and 12 grams of sugar with a GI that’s likely in the mid-60s or even 70s.   Smucker’s will send your kids to school on a sugar high and have them napping by 11 a.m. Nutella also doesn’t compare all that badly next to Skippy Creamy peanut butter, which contains 80 calories, 8 grams fat, 1 gram fiber, 1.5 grams sugar, and 3.5 grams of protein in a tablespoon serving.

It’s no surprise that ready-to-eat cereals are the most popular breakfast choice: From April 2010 to April 2011, U.S. sales amounted to $6.41 billion. It might be something of a surprise, however, that Nutella can be a healthier alternative. A complete, as-advertised breakfast of one tablespoon of Nutella plus one slice of Pepperidge Farm 100 percent whole-wheat bread contains 2.25 grams saturated fat, 4.5 grams dietary fiber, 6.5 grams protein, and 13.5 grams sugar. Now consider a bowl of Lucky Charms plus a half cup of 2 percent milk (the most popular grade of milk among consumers, according to the latest available data). That’s 1.5 grams saturated fat, 2 grams dietary fiber, 6 grams protein, and 16 grams sugar. Nutella loses on the fat front, but wins out on sugar and on the positive categories of fiber and protein. What’s more, a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that kids given high-sugar cereals typically eat twice the recommended serving amount, on average consuming 5.7 teaspoons of sugar.

You’re lucky if your child eats breakfast at all. In a recent study undertaken by Kellogg’s on breakfast habits, 40 percent of mothers interviewed said their kids don’t. Other research shows that 37 percent of young adults miss breakfast, too. Folk wisdom holds that it’s the most important meal of the day; now science confirms this really could be the case. A 2005 article reviewing more than 30 studies on breakfast consumption by children and adolescents surmised that skipping breakfast was linked to a higher intake of high-fat snacks throughout the day and that eating breakfast could positively benefit cognitive function and academic performance. There’s also a consensus that breakfast-eating children have better overall nutrition and lower Body Mass Indices. Convincing parents that breakfast is fundamental isn’t the problem; the challenge lies with convincing the kids. This is where Nutella, or rather its hint of cocoa, steps in. There’s no incentive like chocolate.

Given that kids regularly consume all sorts of terrible junk food (nearly one-third of American children, ages 4 to 19, eat fast food daily, according to a 2009 study), it’s a bit curious that Nutella’s breakfast claims have provoked such a fervent backlash. The blogosphere is riddled with admonitions hurled at Ferrero, there’s a Facebook page questioning the value of breakfasting on chocolate spread, and let’s not forget the ongoing lawsuit. Yet no one is suing Kellogg’s, even though its Frosted Flakes website promotes the excessively sugary cereal as being “great-tasting fuel” packed with “good-for-you grains that give you the great-tasting energy you need.”

Our problem with Nutella may, in part, be fused with entrenched cultural beliefs about chocolate. Chocolate is perceived as both a reward and a guilty pleasure: a rare indulgence permissible on special occasions, or savored in secrecy. The premise that we should embrace this “treat” as functional, everyday fare is entirely at odds with such deeply embedded ideas, and so we reject it. Or sue it.