The Chemistry of Nutella

The people that make Nutella are in a bit of trouble:

The makers claimed the product  was a healthy spread made with “simple, quality ingredients like hazelnuts, skim milk and a hint of coco,” according to its commercial. But in fact, mother of three Laura Rude-Barbato found that the product was no healthier than a candy bar. Two tablespoons of Nutella packs 200 calories, 21 grams of sugar and 11 grams of fat.  


So should we turf out our Nutella as an unhealthy food with no redeeming virtues?

No – it has one redeeming virtue that has received no publicity – until now that is. There is at least one reason why you should continue to use it in moderation: it has a low glycemic index.

In essence, the idea that obesity is a function of the energy balance – calories in and calories and out – is old hat.  If you try to lose weight by simply reducing the amount of food that you eat, the body goes into starvation mode, and starts storing fat.  When you start eating normally again, your body now stores more fat than it would normally store, and you just get fatter.  This is the great danger with dieting.  Your body’s metabolism adjusts to its food intake.  A lower energy food intake simply lowers your metabolism and your body weight will adjust accordingly.

Have you noticed that obese people are often also diabetic?  This has been recognised for some time – and up until fairly recently it was thought that the diabetes was the result of the obesity.  So that to reduce your diabetes, all you do is lose weight.  So these people would go on a diet to lose the weight, and it just wouldn’t work, and they would just get fatter and the diabetes would remain.

In recent years this has been turned on its head.  It is now seen that the obesity is the result of the diabetes.  And the diabetes is the result of eating too much sugar – or, more specifically, the wrong type of sugar.

In just the same way that cars run on petrol, the human body runs on glycogen.  It’s a form of glucose which is the simplest carbohydrate that there is.  Whatever carbohydrates we may eat, they are converted to glycogen before our body can use them.

Our pancreas has the job of regulating the concentration of the glycogen in our blood.  And if it gets too high, because we just eaten too much sugar, it makes insulin, whose job is to cut down on the glycogen.  But it usually overcompensates, with the result that people who eat a lot of sugar and up with high amounts eventually in their blood, and this has result of putting on weight (by a mechanism that I don’t quite understand).

So modern thought has it that the best way to control your weight is to eat foods that do not result in your system being flooded with glycogen.  And this is what he glycaemic index is all about.  High GI is bad, low GI is good.

But how can Nutella be low in GI?  We’ve seen it’s full of fat and sugar – how can it be low in GI?  The reason simply is that it is also high in fat (palm oil which is a saturated fat that is not very good for you).  Because it is high in fat, the fat lines your stomach, and does not allow the sugar to be digested quickly.  Because it is absorbed slowly, it results in a low GI index for the food.

I’ve seen this with other foods as well – there was a particular brand of ice cream (Peters I think) that had the low GI logo on it.  Ice cream, is of course high in both sugar and fat – but in this particular case the fat resulted in the uptake rate of the sugar being slowed down, and therefore a low GI index.

And this is a great trap for people who want to buy healthy food – often we see food advertised as “lite” because it is low in fat, but often this means that it has extra sugar, to compensate for the taste that is missing by taking out the fat.

Of course, if you like something sweet then most fruits and fruit juices are low in GI, because the sugar that is in there is in the form of complex carbohydrates, which are not quickly broken down.  But, if you do want something yummy and tasty on your toast for your breakfast, then Nutella won’t kill you, and because it is low in GI it won’t go your waistline.

But I wouldn’t sit there with a tablespoon scooping it into your mouth while you’re watching a movie


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