This story's original headline has been changed. 

It’s a lot of fuss over a little thing: a tablespoon, to be exact. But when the Food and Drug Administration asked for the public’s input on an obscure regulatory change that would cut Nutella’s labeled serving size by half, it was flooded by comments — more than 650 of them.

At issue is something called the RACC, or the “reference amount customarily consumed.” It’s the federal guideline companies use when labeling the serving sizes for packaged foods.

Nutella is classified as a dessert topping, with a RACC of two tablespoons. Its manufacturer, Ferrero, would like to see it reclassified either as a jam or in a new category all its own, which would cut the serving size (and the sugar and calorie counts) that Nutella displays on its labels.

That has attracted the ire of both health groups and Big Peanut Butter, who see Nutella as an encroaching threat. To them, the debate over Nutella’s serving size isn’t just an obscure regulatory question — it’s an example of the junk food industry misleading consumers on nutrition.

“It’s deceptive,” said Lindsay Moyer, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which submitted a comment opposing the serving size reduction. “Shrinking the serving size of Nutella is a marketing ploy to trick people into thinking that it has less calories than peanut butter.”

In a statement to The Washington Post, Ferrero said it was simply seeking clarity as it and other companies prepare their new Nutrition Facts labels, slated for release in 2018. “The key point is that the amount that is customarily consumed — 1 tablespoon — should determine the RACC,” the firm said, referencing consumption data it has commissioned through a third party. 

Ferrero’s most recent quest to cut Nutella’s serving size dates back to 2014, when the company first petitioned the FDA to either reclassify Nutella as a jam or place it in a new RACC category. In that initial petition, Ferrero’s lawyers argued that Nutella is now used mostly as a spread on bread or toast, and should thus have a jam or jelly’s one-tablespoon serving.

The FDA standardizes serving sizes by groups of foods: all jellies have the same serving size; all butters have another. Contrary to popular belief, the serving size describes how much Americans typically consume in one sitting — not how much they actually should. It's designed to help consumers easily compare foods.

But critics of Nutella’s FDA petition say the company is trying to make that more difficult — that, in fact, they're hoping to obscure the nutritional differences between Nutella and its more nutritious competitors. The Peanut Institute, an industry lobbying group, requested that the FDA classify Nutella as a nut butter, with its serving size of two tablespoons.

Meanwhile, the Specialty Food Association — which represents several almond and peanut butter producers, as well as the makers of Nutella-like coffee, cookie and chocolate spreads — requested that Nutella keep the dessert topping designation. According to Euromonitor, a market research firm, U.S. sales of Nutella are up 39 percent — from $161.4 million to $224.3 million — in the past five years. While far more nut butters are sold in the U.S. overall, their sales grew only 5 percent in that same period.

Research has found that product sales increase when manufacturers introduce smaller serving sizes, at least for some food categories.

“[If] the two products were on the same shelf but with different serving sizes, the nutrition information would give an unfair advantage to [Nutella],” wrote Philip Kafarakis, the president of the Specialty Food Association, in his comments to the FDA. “It is imperative that consumers be able to easily make comparisons of the macronutrient amounts in foods they use in similar ways.”

Nutella is indeed frequently stocked with nut butters in stores, which share the two tablespoon serving size and narrowly undercut Nutella on calorie count. If Nutella’s serving size changed to one tablespoon, it could advertise a mere 100 calories per serving — versus roughly 188 calories for two tablespoons of peanut butter, or 196 calories for almond.

Unlike most peanut or almond butters, Nutella is composed largely of sugar and palm oil; hazelnuts are its distant third ingredient. Two tablespoons of Nutella have 21 grams of sugar, which is 88 percent of the American Heart Association’s daily sugar recommendation for women, and 58 percent that for men.

Incidentally, this is not Ferrero’s first labeling rodeo, either: The company also lobbied hard to get the serving size for Tic-Tacs, one of its other products, reduced in the early 1990s. The RACC for breath mints — two grams, at the time — worked out to five Tic-Tacs, which Ferrero said hurt the company’s claim that one breath mint was all customers would need.

Two grams of Tic-Tacs also contain more than 0.5 grams of sugar, the FDA threshold for labeling a product sugar-free. A single Tic-Tac falls under that threshold, however — allowing Tic-Tacs to say the mints contain no sugar, even though it’s their primary ingredient.

Ferrero eventually prevailed in that case: The FDA allowed the company to list its serving size as “one unit” versus a specific number of grams. Can Ferrero pull off a similar feat again?

The FDA is “carefully reviewing” comments and will decide after that, said an agency spokeswoman.

This story's original headline has been changed. 

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