PARIS: French government minister Segolene Royal was forced to apologize yesterday after saying Nutella was harmful to the environment, a comment that triggered furore in the industry and in Italy where the food spread is made.
“A thousand apologies for the controversy over Nutella,” she wrote in a tweet on Wednesday afternoon. “I agree about highlighting progress (in sustainable palm oil production)."
Royal had earlier urged people to stop eating the hazelnut spread that is beloved of generations of schoolchildren because it is made from palm oil, which comes from oil palm plantations in southeast Asia.
"We have to replant a lot of trees because there is massive deforestation that also leads to global warming.
"We should stop eating Nutella, for example, because it's made with palm oil," she said in an interview on the French television network Canal+.
"Oil palms have replaced trees, and therefore caused considerable damage to the environment," she said.
Ferrero, the Italian chocolate company which produces the spread, should use products other than palm oil to make Nutella, she said.
France’s Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry body, condemned her comments, saying producers and food companies were making progress on the environmental front.
Privately-owned Ferrero says on its website that its palm oil was sourced from environmentally-sustainable plantations. The company said that 100 per cent of its palm oil came from well-run estates in Malaysia, with the rest coming from Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Brazil.
Agnese Renzi, the wife of Italy’s prime minister, was shown by Italian media ordering a pancake filled with the spread for her daughter Ester. The little girl cheerfully smiled and held up high a bottle of the Nutella spread.
Italian politicians had also reacted to Royal’s call for an unreasonable boycott.
Gian Luca Galletti, Italy’s environment minister, said Ms Royal’s criticism of Nutella was “baffling”, telling her to “leave Italian products alone”. Commenting on Twitter, he said: “I’ll be having bread and Nutella tonight for dinner”.
Roberto Calderoli, a senator with the centre-Right Northern League, a party whose defence of Italian values and products often verges on the xenophobic, also came to the defence of the chocolate spread.
“We grew up with Nutella and we’ll never give it up,” he said. “If the French don’t want to eat Nutella, too bad for them, they don’t know what they’re missing.”
Michele Anzaldi, a member of the ruling Democratic Party, said Ms Royal should apologise for her remarks, which he called “a grave blunder”.
The debate even made it to the front page of Italy’s respected and sober financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, which pointed out that palm oil was not just used in Nutella, but in a huge range of products, from biscuits and chocolate to ice cream.
In 2012, a group of French politicians tried to introduce a 300 per cent tax on palm oil, arguing that it was high in fat and that its cultivation resulted in the clearing of rainforest. The measure was defeated.
Nutella is Italy's national heritage. Four months ago, there was national mourning when Michele Ferrero, the patriarch of the eponymous chocolate conglomerate, died at the age of 89.
Ferrero was Italy’s richest man, with his family’s fortune estimated at around £15 billion.
In a tribute, Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president, called the chocolate baron “a born entrepreneur”, praising him for introducing products such as Ferrero Rocher chocolates, Tic-Tacs and Kinder Surprise eggs.
It was Ferrero's father, a small-time pastry maker, who laid the groundwork for the Nutella recipe. During the Second World War, when cocoa was in short supply, he hit on the idea of mixing in hazelnuts, which are plentiful in northern Italy, where the company is based.
Over here in Malaysia, the palm oil council chief executive officer Tan Sri Yusof Basiron said that the palm is a healthy oil and all natural.
Malaysia's booth stand at the Expo 2015, explained to the public there that it is illegal for European food manufacturers to go on labelling "No palm oil" on their products.
Yusof on his twitter, too, questioned the French's Minister's wrongful act of defaming palm oil's reputation.
Unknown to many, oil palm trees are the most environmentally-friendly oil crop compared to other variants such as rapeseed, sunflower and soil.
This is because on a per-litre basis, palm oil production requires less energy, land and fewer fertilisers or pesticide usage compared to other vegetable oils.
Oil palms have a productive lifespan of 20 to 30 years while its competitors like rapeseed, soya and sunflower need to be uprooted every four months during harvest and that contributes to soil erosion.
More importantly, Yusof highlighted that a study from Fonds Francais Alimentation et Santé finds that replacing palm oil with partially-hydrogenated soft oils is a bad option for consumers as it would potentially lead to more consumption of the deadly trans fat.