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Making the Medicine Go Down: The Nutella Case

Making the Medicine Go Down: The Nutella Case

Binoy Kampmark
August 14, 2011

The litigious society has taken another step into oblivion. San Diego mum Anthena Hohenberg was ‘shocked’ to learn earlier this eyar that the achingly tasty Nutella was full of fat and sugar and not exactly up there in the nutritious league of foods. Surely, a combination of hazel nuts and cocoa would itself have been suitably healthy? It was, in fact, tantamount to having a candy bar. As a result, her 4-year-old daughter had been fed Nutella daily for breakfast under some misapprehension that it was healthy.

After her road to Damascus conversion, Hohenberg proceeded to launch a law suit against the makers of Nutella, Ferrero. She seeks a correction to the advertisements claiming Nutella to be healthy, and a return of money expended for ‘any wrongful act or practice’.

There is little doubt that Nutella’s advertisements are angled, and not so subtly, towards nutrition, though there is little doubt that the spread is not to be taken alone. One is intended to have other things for breakfast as well to make up the nutritious ensemble. The proof of good health, as it were, is less in the Nutella than in everything else. ‘It’s nutritious,’ explains Nadia Arumugam in Slate (Aug 3) 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.’

The Nutella website also makes the claim that getting children to eat breakfast is better than having no breakfast at all. In itself, the claim is irrefutable – many children are skipping breakfasts, and society has a battle on its hands in various ‘developed’ countries to make the young ones eat.

The nutrition facts panel of Nutella does not shy away from the fact that the spread is packed with fat – two tablespoons have 200 calories, half of them from the fat content, though it is not of the ‘trans’ variety. Nor can the caption on the label be refuted – each serving has 21 grams of sugar.

There is nothing less common than common sense, and the advertising monitors are out to support Hohenberg’s judgment. Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Centre for Food Policy at Yale University, is blunt about the advertisements. ‘They seemed pretty outrageous’ (Shots, Feb 10, 2011). The food commentator Andrew Wilder accepts that the law suit is far from frivolous but ‘critical’ since Nutella touts the ‘Build Your Own Breakfast’ tool on its website as ‘an interactive exercise that lets consumers experiment with various breakfast combinations and compare basic nutrient values’ (Eatingrules, Feb 17).

And the curious thing is that Harris is absolutely right about the topic of regulating corporate giants who sell products on the sly, deceptive about their overall nature. But Hohenberg’s questionable judgment was no excuse to escalate legal matters. Where, one wonders, are the legal wars against the junk food industry, or the cereal market, where brands such as Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes are promoted as “good-for-you grains that give you the great-tasting energy you need.”

In the end, one might speculate why such a suit could seriously be entertained. Court systems across numerous countries are at breaking point in terms of hearing cases, borne down by volume and duration. Legal costs are skyrocketing. And to hear a case such as this simply adds more fuel to the argument that certain societies are in litigious meltdown. And what ever happened to that sense of fun that having a bit of wickedness in your life, be it a candy bar or Nutella, may not in itself be a bad thing?


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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