by Marion Nestle
Nov 21 2012

Mon dieu. The French “Nutella tax.”

Not to worry.  This is just a proposal.

A French Senator wants the country to impose a 300% increase in the tax on palm oil imports, thereby raising the price of products containing it—like Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread beloved by European children (and adults).

Of course they love it.  The first ingredient is sugar.

But the second ingredient is palm oil, high in saturated fats.  Palm oil production, again alas, is strongly linked to deforestation and other environmental problems in Malasia and Indonesia.

The proposed tax distresses Malasian palm oil producers:

The action…to propose onerous new burdens on palm oil producers, is irresponsible, badly-informed and ignores the primary source of saturated fats in the French diet [referring to trans fats].

The proposed tax also distresses the makers of Nutella, as well it should.  Most Nutella eaters probably think they are eating hazelnuts and chocolate.  It must come as an unpleasant surprise to learn that the first two ingredients are sugar and palm oil.

At a meeting in Boston this week, Joe O’Toole, the president of Lucullus, a French specialty food company, brought me the November 16 edition of Le Figaro.  He knew I’d want to see the two-page ad defending Nutella’s use of palm oil.

My rather loose translation:

Nutella, you are delicious but why do you have palm oil?

Let’s talk about palm oil.

For 50 years, the French have trusted us to be an important brand.  This is an important responsibility.  This is why we have always made responsible choices in our selection of ingredients.

Today, Nutella finds itself in an unjust position at the heart of a debate about palm oil….Palm oil gives smoothness (“l’onctuosité”) and stability to the recipe.

…Contrary to certain ideas and opportunistic communications…palm oil is not dangerous to health. Nutritionists say…Nutella contains less saturated fat than most snacks or breakfasts.

At the bottom of both pages, the ad says: “For your health, eat at least five fruits and vegetables per day.”

Oh.  OK. [It turns out that the French government requires this statement on all food ads.]

Nutella’s website has a Q and A.  For example:

How can Nutella® help moms at breakfast time?

It can be difficult to persuade children to eat breakfast. When used in moderation with complementary foods, Nutella® is a quick and easy tool to encourage kids to eat whole grains, such as whole wheat toast, English muffins, toaster waffles and bagels.

The chocolate milk argument!  It sounds better in French, no doubt.

Update, November 23: Thanks to Lucie for finding this annotated, alternative version of the ad.










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  • Fil

    not to mention the sexism of the argument

    thank you Marion for your work

  • Nicole

    Do you have any information on the growth of Nutella consumption in the U.S.? In my eyes, it has really taken off here in the past decade or so. I’m also curious how it stacks up nutritionally to other ‘hazelnut spreads’ (Read: sugar and palm oil deliciousness). Here in Michigan I’ve seen similar spreads appear by Jif, Meijer brand, Kroger brand, etc. I was able to find the Jif hazelnut spread nutritional label online and they list vegetable oils (rapeseed and palm) as the second ingredient next to sugar.

  • Ted T.

    I would be very interested in finding out if Nutella’s ingredients changed over the years. Were they using palm oil 50 years ago?

    Many beloved brands have changed their recipes over the years, reducing the amount of more expensive ingredients in favor of cheaper ones. Take Tiptree preserves which has increased sugar and decreased fruit, adding lemon juice and pectin to compensate.

  • Howard G

    Funny how Europeans have been feeding Nutella to their kids for decades and only until they begin to adopt a more “American lifestyle” do the rates of overweight and obesity rise. Is it Nutella? Likely not.

    And, I’m a healthy, active, normal weight American who has been drinking chocolate milk since I was drinking milk – in fact it’s the only dairy product I consume. Shouldn’t I be obese? Shouldn’t I be dead by now? I mean chocolate milk is evil – or at least, that’s what some say (but I’m not naming names). And, after taking a DXA scan I come to find out my bone density is amazing and my muscle tone is equivalent to a man in there 20’s – however I am pushing 40.

    So, can we please stop picking on a single food when we need to focus our attention on personal responsibility and self control.

    Sorry Marion – all foods fit, if there is personal responsibility and self control married with food choice.

  • For a blog post, I once used algebra to break down the Nutella recipe into its component ingredients. Needless to say, while we used to have it as an occasional treat, after seeing what’s in it, I have a really hard time with the stuff now. (The algebra was fairly simple to do once you went to their website and calculated using a few givens – the number of hazelnuts, the amount of calcium (the only calcium-containing ingredient is milk powder) and the amount of sugars and fats.)

    If Nutella would market itself as candy, I’d have less of a problem with it.

  • We’ve had a similar drama in New Zealand over the use of palm oil in chocolate. Palm oil is cheaper than cocoa butter; manufacturers switched to palm oil, Greenpeace kicked up a stink, Whittakers put the cocoa butter back and advertised it, Cadburys resisted, Cadburies lost market share and Whittakers flourished.
    But all the cheap and nasty non-dairy spreads still use palm oil (instead of trans fats, which N.Z. was one of the first countries to eliminate).

  • Cathy Richards

    Buy some peanut butter or almond or hazelnut butter, put it in a food blender (save the jar), add cocoa powder to taste and about 6-8 pitted dates (more if you like). Blend well. Add a bit of canola or peanut oil if necessary. Restore in jar. No need to refrigerate.

    Nutella is nuts.

  • Joe

    Why does anyone care who eats Nutella? Why not be consistent and let people do as they choose with their own bodies. If parents choose to buy this for their children then so what. Leave them (us) alone.

  • In my country ( lebanon), Nutella is expensive in compared to other local chocolate spread products.
    But I do believe that Nutella’s recipe and palm oil content is better than those products who are actually of low quality and contain more palm oil content or other “bad” fats.
    The point is, sometimes I do buy the low priced ( low quality) product instead of Nutella, where I should be doing the opposite.

    So, taxing products especially snacks, is not a solution here. People will go for a substitute and the substitute might not be a better choice.
    This greatly depends on many economical factors such as income , and salary !

    I think what people need to change is their lifestyle and mindset. Then, they can choose products with less saturated fats.

  • Anthro


    I would only add that one should start with “real” peanut butter, not the Skippy or Jif type that is already loaded with fat and sugar.

    Personally, at 200 calories per “serving”, I have trouble limiting peanut butter, which I love, so I try not to add anything else to it–much as I love peanut butter, honey and banana sandwiches.

    @Joe and Howard G.

    Personal responsibility has obviously not worked to avoid an obesity epidemic. Did we have more PR thirty years ago? I doubt it. So what has changed? It’s the environment, stupid. We now have food (most of which isn’t) everywhere and TV everywhere harping on children, who harp on their parents (in spite of your disapproval) who end up buying the stuff because they see the ads too.

    Besides, wouldn’t your goal of personal responsibility be better served through good public health policy, including educational efforts, rather than lurking on such blog efforts to chant the mantra of personal responsibility?

    It might have been easier to control a child’s Nutella serving (and I agree that it is candy) thirty years ago when Mom actually made the breakfast or snack, but these days kids feed themselves for the most part, so who’s even around to know what or how much they eat? Convenience is the order of the day for overworked parents. These problems are systemic and have little to do with so-called personal responsibility–are the parents being irresponsible because they both have to work (sometimes more than one job) to pay the mortgage?

  • Just yesterday, a friend of mine re-posted a picture on Facebook which is basically this ad, with comments from a group called “vivre sans huile de palme” (“living without palm oil”)… You might be interested:

  • Margeretrc

    Palm oil may be bad for the environment, but it is not bad for health. If it were, cultures that eat palm oil daily as part of the traditional diet would be having problems with CVD and other issues. They’re not.) The ingredients that keep me from purchasing Nutella are sugar and dry milk powder (a source of oxidized cholesterol–much worse for the cardiovascular system than palm oil.) I may have to try Cathy’s recipe–seems much healthier than any commercial brand of chocolate nut spread!

  • Food health goes beyond individual weights and sugar consumption. Healthy foods are sustainable foods, which means they don’t degrade the environment. There’s nothing healthy about degrading the environment.

    So a discussion of the use of palm oil is appropriate when discussing healthy food or even food safety.

    Nutella is a lose/lose across the board. It has too much sugar, and it uses a form of oil that’s bad for the environment, and not especially healthy, either.

    Increasing taxes on an ingredient that damages the environment is an effective way to encourage companies into exploring alternatives.

    Howard G: anecdotal evidence does not make a valid argument. I imagine we can easily and quickly find a kid somewhere who drinks chocolate milk every morning and who is fat. Metabolism differs between people.

    It is appropriate to ‘pick on a single food’ when the producers of that food spend enormous amount of money advertising how healthy an essentially unhealthy food is for breakfast.

  • Howard G

    @Shelley. Thank You! Anectodotal evidence does not make a valid argument. I agree 100%. Therefore I question why some are going against certain foods – like chocolate milk and nutella- when there is zero clinical evidence -or epi evidence- that shows these two foods have anything to do with our current state of health. That is my point. We need a comprehensive approach that includes both environmental change and personal responsibility (which includes good parenting skills) and self control. Hear me @Cathy and everyone else that is reading this? We need both environmental change and personal responsibility. We can’t create a world of food regulations and policies that dictate what we should eat and how much. It is ones personal responsibility to take all the free information out there and figure it out. If they need help then visit a registered dietitian.

  • Michael Bulger

    @Howard I don’t think anyone has conducted a study to determine if chocolate milk itself is correlated to obesity. There are plenty of studies that connect eating more calories to obesity, though. And that is what chocolate milk is in comparison to unsweetened beverages.

    I understand you don’t think regulations alone will be effective. I’ve never heard of someone who advocates for better regulation of the food system denying that personal responsibility is important. But personal responsibility in the face of an unhealthy environment is not going to be effective.

    Further, not everyone can afford/has access to a RD. I disagree that we should expect people to just “figure it out.” I think that specialization of knowledge should be employed to improve lives and assist other members of society. Not everyone can invest as much time as we do into deciphering food marketing and the food system. To stand by idly is unwise, unhelpful, and a touch cruel.

  • Howard G

    @Michael Bulger

    There is also research to show kids that drink chocolate milk regularly get more nutrients than those that don’t drink milk and are not any more heavier than those that don’t drink chocolate milk

    I guess we can agree to disagree. Personal responsibility in the face of an unhealthy environment is our reality. There will always be temptation and people need to learn how to eat. Yes it is hard. Life is hard. There are plenty of resources available to help people learn how to eat – if they can’t afford an RD. We are not “standing by idly.” We are spending millions of dollars trying to educate We can’t all afford accountants but are all required to pay taxes. I know it isn’t a direct parallel but both do have similarities.

  • Michael Bulger

    All-or-nothing comparisons like sugar-sweetened milk vs. no milk aren’t evidence of the benefits of sugar-sweetened milk. There are plenty of sources for kids to get their nutrients without added sugar/calories.

    In any event, “life is hard” is not a public policy. As a mantra, it will only exasperate societal suffering.

  • Giuseppe Lijoi

    I love Nutella, but I don’t eat it due to the fact that contains palm oil.

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  • George

    “ignores the primary source of saturated fats in the French diet [referring to trans fats].”

    Excuzie moi?

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  • Samerica