Food manufacturers often use cleverly-phrased health claims and trendy buzzwords to make consumers choose their products. While I believe that consumers should always take such advertising with a grain of salt (and research), I also think that shrewd advertising is at least partly to blame for our country’s major problems with obesity: We’re so inundated with food advertising disguised as “nutritional” advice, often from doctors who are on big food’s payroll, that it’s hard to tell who has our best interests at heart, and who’s just shilling for the newest processed foods. As a result, many of us either throw our hands up and head to McDonald’s or go with Oprah’s latest favorite thing, then wonder why we’re gaining weight, only to begin a new search for the best “diet” foods to get us back on track. It’s a vicious cycle, and lots of us are getting fed up with it, including Athena Hohenberg, who’s suing Nutella in America’s latest false advertising lawsuit.
Hohenberg filed her lawsuit in a federal court in San Diego, and hopes to turn it into a class-action suit. In the suit, which was obtained by AFP earlier this month, she says she was “shocked to learn that Nutella was in fact, not ‘healthy, nutritious’ food, but instead was the next best thing to a candy bar, and that Nutella contains dangerous level of saturated fat.” You may be thinking, “come on, lady, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that a chocolatey spread is full of fat and sugar,” but after looking at Nutella’s advertising, Hohenberg’s outrage is easily justified. On Nutella’s website, a thin, happy mother and her healthy-looking children eat Nutella and toast around the table. Several links like “Nutella + Nutrition” point to information targeted at Moms, quoting studies and doctors about the importance of breakfast. At the end of several paragraphs about the benefits of breakfast for kids, the company finally rationalizes Nutella’s nutritional merits:
When used in moderation with complementary foods, Nutella® can form a part of a balanced meal. It is a quick and easy way to encourage kids to eat whole grains, such as whole wheat toast, English muffins, toaster waffles and bagels. With the unique taste of Nutella®, kids may think they are eating a treat for breakfast while moms are helping nourish their children with whole grains.
Nutella isn’t recommending that families eat Nutella by the spoonful, but we see why Hohenberg things their advertising is a joke. Her suit points out that it “contains dangerous levels of saturated fat,” and “over 55 % processed sugar,” which “significantly contribute to America’s alarming increase in childhood obesity” and can cause heart disease, type-2 diabetes and other “serious health problems.”
If you still think that Hohenberg or any other Moms would be stupid to buy Nutella’s advertising schtick, consider the numerous health headlines that confuse even the most health-conscious consumers. On Huffington Post, for example, one headline boasts, “Chocolate’s Startling Health Benefits.” Its author, John Robbins, is a well-renowned expert on health and nutrition: His Diet for a New America won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and he’s been writing books about food and aging since. (His father was the founder of Baskin-Robbins, but he chose to walk away from the ice cream empire to promote a vegan lifestyle, instead.) His article begins with a convincing opener:
The food police may find this hard to take, but chocolate has gotten a bad rap. People say it causes acne, that you should eat carob instead, that it’s junk food. But these accusations are not only undeserved and inaccurate, they falsely incriminate a delicious food that turns out to have profoundly important healing powers.
If you continue reading his 1,067-word article, he outlines some great news about the health benefits of chocolate; a quick skim of the first half of his article might lead you to believe that Nutella is good for you after all. But the devil is in the details, and in this case, the details are buried halfway through the article: Only after singing its praises does Robbins explain that a) you don’t need very much chocolate to reap its health benefits, and b) chocolate gets a bad reputation because we add so much crap to it. He briefly explains that most chocolate contains added fat, milk products, and sugars, which are responsible for so many of the ailments we attribute to chocolate. Robbins can’t be held accountable for whether his readers are attentive and thorough, but the reality is that many are not. (Having written hundreds, if not thousands, of headlines and posts about health for Blisstree, I can testify that many of the most vehement comments come from readers who clearly haven’t read the entire text of a post). Many consumers cobble together their ideas about health and nutrition based on sound bites, headlines, and advertising like Nutella’s, leading to vast confusion about what is good and bad for our health.
It’s easy to roll our eyes at lawsuits Hohenberg’s against Nutella, and I can just hear my Canadian and British friends saying that it’s “so American” to sue a company for making us fat. I absolutely believe that we should all take responsibility for our actions (and health). But beyond meaning that consumers need to start reading food labels and paying heed to dietary recommendations, doesn’t it also mean that businesses and corporations need to take responsibility for their products? Shouldn’t companies like Ferrerro, the makers of Nutella, also man up and admit that their product isn’t healthy?