How Nutella Spread From Wartime Italy to the Tables of the World

A true Italian romance story

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In March 1995, readers of The New Yorker happened across a Talk of the Town piece that, if it hadn't been about food, could easily have been about sex. Writer Andrea Lee evoked a product with an "animating spirit that takes it beyond its physical components." It was "more unctuous than peanut butter," with a "pillowy mildness that appeals to regressive urges."

Photo: Nick Ferrari

Good heavens—what jar of stuff could be all these things? Only Nutella, of course.

With the possible exception of peanut butter (maybe), Nutella is easily the most popular spread in existence. According to the BBC, people in 160 countries eat 365 million kilos of Nutella—the weight of the Empire State Building—yearly. In New York, Columbia University's dining halls drop some $6,000 a month on Nutella. Feb. 5 is World Nutella Day. And every three seconds or so, someone on Planet Earth buys a jar of Nutella.

How is it that a basic chocolate-hazelnut spread went from being an Italian treat to a global cult phenom? "There are two main reasons," said Jennifer Lee, who runs the food blog Kirbie's Cravings (which features over 100 recipes devoted to Nutella). Primarily is, of course, the addictive combination of cocoa and hazelnut. But the other reason, Lee believes, is that Nutella fulfills a latent foodie fantasy. "It's the idea of chocolate being acceptable as a breakfast spread," she said. "It's something most of us dream of as children."

In fact, that's essentially Nutella's founding story. In the 1940s, Italian baker Pietro Ferrero began cutting his chocolate with hazelnuts to compensate for the wartime shortage of sugar. Gianduja, the product was called. Adding lecithin, the Ferreros next developed a spreadable version called Supercrema Gianduja, which Pietro's son Michele began calling Nutella in 1964. Early ads used the slogan "A delight to spread on bread" and often pictured a mother serving Nutella to her children. It was through those ads—bless them—that Italians, and soon the world, accepted chocolate as a breakfast food.

In the United States (which didn't get Nutella until 1983), Americans didn't need much of an excuse to eat Nutella for all three meals a day. And, in fact, says Dino Borri, director of purchasing for Eataly New York, his Nutella Bar is full of people doing just that. "We're full all day long," Borri said. "For me, Nutella is more like a breakfast item. But here, people eat Nutella for breakfast, lunch and dinner—it's New York!"

Borri believes fans should enjoy Nutella in moderation (two tablespoons of Nutella contain 11 grams of fat and 200 calories), but not all of them do. In 2013, thieves in Germany broke into a Nutella truck and made off with 6,500 jars—that's 11,000 pounds of Nutella.

Napoleon: Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.
Publish date: November 9, 2015 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT