Shelves of Nutella, which has the nutritional properties of a chocolate bar. Picture: Reuters/Dado Ruvic

It’s one of those stories which has people muttering “only in America”.

Two mothers took Ferrero, the Italian-based maker of Nutella, to court, saying the company misled them into believing that Nutella was a healthy breakfast choice for their children – and won.

Athena Hohenberg, the mother of a four-year-old in San Diego, California, launched the class-action lawsuit last year, alleging that Ferrero was promoting Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread, as something “healthier than it actually is”, court documents said.

Nutella’s two main ingredients are sugar and palm oil, followed by hazelnuts, cocoa and skimmed milk. But Ferrero doesn’t make any mention of sugar or palm oil in its adverts.

The company markets the creamy brown paste worldwide as “an example of a tasty yet balanced breakfast” but is careful to add that this applies when Nutella is eaten with milk, fruit and wholewheat bread.

Hohenberg was alarmed to discover that Nutella is, in fact, not a “healthy, nutritious” food, but instead a product with “the nutritional properties of a candy bar”, the lawsuit said.

Mother of three, Laura Rude-Barbato, also filed suit against Ferrero, saying the Nutella TV advert which claimed that it is made with “simple, quality ingredients like hazelnuts, skim milk and a hint of cocoa”, was false.

“I thought it was, at least, as nutritious as peanut butter if not more, and that’s the impression I got from the advertisement. I thought it had health benefits and it clearly doesn’t,” she told ABC News.

The two cases were settled last week for a total of about R3 million, which will be split between American consumers who bought Nutella between January 2008 and February 2012 – and between August 2009 and January 2012 in the case of Californians.

They won’t have to produce receipts.

The group’s US division said it would pay up to $4 a jar of Nutella, and for no more than five jars a person.

It also agreed to “modify certain marketing statements about Nutella” and to give more prominence to nutrition labels on Nutella jars, the notices said.

So will this change the way Nutella is marketed in other countries? Apparently not.

Ferrero has said that there was no need for the company to alter its commercial and advertising behaviour in other countries, repeating that having Nutella for breakfast with bread, milk and fruit, in the suggested quantities, is in line with recommendations from many leading international scientific studies within the framework of a balanced and tasty diet.

Ferrero also pointed out that it was cheaper to settle such a case rather than finance a prolonged legal dispute, regardless of the outcome.

The settlement has sparked a debate in US traditional and social media about parental responsibility to read labels versus a company’s obligation to ensure that its advertising is not misleading.

The full nutritional breakdown – a 100g and a serving – is right there on the Nutella label, along with a list of ingredients, with sugar at the top of the list, which tells you that the product is mostly sugar.

Vegetable oil is listed second, and hazelnuts – which make up 13 percent of the product – third.

Interestingly, in December 2006, South Africa’s Advertising Standards Authority dismissed a “misleading advertising” complaint lodged by a consumer against Nutella’s TV advert.

Vanessa Johnson said because the spread’s main ingredients were sugar and fat, it should not be promoted as part of a healthy breakfast, but rather as a delicious treat.

Responding, the importers said Nutella had similar nutritional value to a slice of bread with butter and jam, which no-one considered unhealthy; that the label clearly listed all ingredients and that the advert made it clear that Nutella should form part of a complete breakfast meal.

The ASA directorate agreed that the main message of the advert was that Nutella was part of a nutritious breakfast and did not constitute one on its own, and thus viewers would not be misled.

“People are aware that all diets should be balanced, and the commercial makes it sufficiently clear that Nutella is but one component of a healthy or nutritious breakfast that will give children enough energy to face the day,” the directorate said, in dismissing the complaint.

Last October, Canada’s largest French newspaper, La Presse, asked its readers this question: “Would you put chocolate frosting (icing) on your bread in the morning?”

Turns out a spoonful of store-bought chocolate icing – which was half the price of Nutella – had fewer kilojoules, half the fat and less sugar than the same quantity of Nutella.

“So, if you must indulge in a combination of palm oil, sugar and cocoa, the chocolate frosting may be the better option for your wallet and your waistline,” the newspaper concluded.

“Ultimately, however, neither of them really makes up part of a healthy breakfast.”

I found two other brands of chocolate hazelnut spread in my local supermarket this week. Belgium-made Pralinutta lists sugar and vegetable oil as its two main ingredients and its hazelnut content is less than half that of Nutella, at 6 percent.

Charms choc-hazelnut spread – made in Italy – is 7 percent hazelnuts, but its main ingredient is also sugar.

Nutella’s sugar content in a 30g serving is a whopping 16.5g – a lot more than that of the same size serving of Kellogg’s Coco Pops – 9g.

In fact, even a serving of three Oreo cookies delivers less sugar than Nutella – 9.9grams.

Responding to criticism that if consumers wanted to know what was in food products, they should read the labels, Rude-Barbato told ABC News: “If I had to stop to read every label, I’d probably spend four to five hours in the grocery store.”

That’s a cop-out, if you ask me. If you don’t have time to read labels in store, at least, spend a few minutes at home, reading the labels on the stuff you’ve bought, to figure out whether you want to make a repeat purchase or not.

You may be surprised what you discover in that small print – South African labels have become a lot more revealing lately, thanks to the new food labelling regulations.